A few months ago, students at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Tom Madison, former Executive Director of the New York State Thruway Authority (NYSTA). He was reportedly ousted for some combination of failure to ensure snowplowed highways and “inconsistent” accounting practices within the semi-autonomous agency. His departure comes amid an estimated $36 million deficit in the agency’s 2015 operations budget. That budget relies heavily on toll revenue from its nearly 600 mile long system to cover road maintenance and administrative costs.
Tappan Zee, the biggest and most famous of the Authority’s 800 bridges, was completed in 1955 for $80 million and has since endured considerable wear. The 138,000 vehicular crossings per day is significantly higher than was forecasted during the original design phase. By today’s standards, the bridge was constructed using inferior steel as the good quality metal was being used in the Korean War effort. Realizing the inferiority of construction materials, engineers made it clear at the time that the bridge was only intended to last for 50 years.
Nearly a decade beyond the bridge’s expiration date, construction has begun on the $4 billion replacement structure. Named the “New New York Bridge” by Governor Andrew Cuomo, it is slated to be completed in 2018 with a life expectancy approaching 100 years. Construction of the new span is nothing short of an engineering and marketing marvel—there are even live webcams from several angles overseeing the construction process.
Environmental concerns play a significant role in bridge construction, which adds substantial costs to the project. Construction on this scale and of this type is notoriously damaging to both human and animal life, typically due to air pollution and absurdly loud noises. Mitigation equipment has been implemented to curb these negative externalities and procure goodwill with the surrounding communities. Beneficiaries of increased environmental awareness include the Peregrine Falcon and the endangered Sturgeon.
Financing the new bridge has been anything but simple, as the Authority has struggled to find the requisite capital for construction. The bridge’s close proximity to the five boroughs of New York City and regular, heavy commuter traffic has brought all business concerning construction under heavy media scrutiny. This bridge over the Hudson River is a sort of microcosm of the infrastructure issues facing the nation as a whole.
No issue garners more attention and apprehension than tolls. The current toll is a bargain at $5 when compared to the nearby George Washington Bridge toll of about $12. Tolls for the “New New York Bridge” should necessarily rise substantially as the Authority is on the hook for billions of dollars in revenue bond debt service. Governor Cuomo, master of public perceptions, has not publically committed to an adjusted toll rate. He’s gone to dramatic measures to prevent the tolls from rising even a little, including diverting over $1 billion in settlement money from financial institutions.
There is a lot of risk wrapped up in this project for the state of New York, its politicians, and commuters who rely on the bridge everyday. As Madison pointed out in our interview, other states should pay attention to what happens on the Hudson because as our nation’s infrastructure crumbles his experience may become the new normal.