One of the unresolved questions about the Tappan Zee Bridge/I-287 corridor project is who will run the bus rapid transit and commuter rail systems planned for the corridor. Another big question, which MTR looked at earlier today, is who will pay for them. In the past, the NY State Thruway Authority has claimed that neither toll money nor bonds backed by toll revenue can be used to run transit over the bridge. While true, the statement overstates the Authority’s prohibition. Though operating a transit line is not within the statutory powers given to the Authority, the power to construct and maintain transit facilities is.
The founding statute (Laws of New York, Public Authorities, Article 2, Title 9) of the Thruway Authority limits the Authority to maintaining and operating the “thruway system,” which consists of the Thruway itself, the New York state canal system and the Tappan Zee ferry service. However, the Authority’s power over the “thruway system” extends to “facilities related thereto as the authority may determine.” Therefore, any infrastructure that achieves the Authority’s purpose of facilitating a smoothly running Thruway is within their jurisdiction. This can include bonding for transit across the Tappan Zee Bridge: as the Tappan Zee project website reasons, “adding transit to the I-287 Corridor could help minimize corridor travel delay, reduce travel times, provide travel choices, improve local and regional mobility, foster economic growth and improve air quality.”
As if to illustrate, in the early 1990s, the state legislature added section 386 to the Authority’s founding statute, which authorized the Authority to issue bonds in order to raise limited funds for “the construction, reconstruction, improvement, reconditioning and preservation of rail freight facilities and for the cost of intercity rail passenger facilities and equipment.” The section specifically notes that one purpose served by the projects would be to “provide rail access to relieve highway congestion.” (Interestingly, the section also authorizes bonds for aviation projects, stretching the connective fiber to the thruway even further.)
In the November 2008 Tappan Zee project financing report, the multi-agency study team didn’t make any assumptions about which agencies would pay for the project, but still seemed to suggest that transit funds wouldn’t be coming from the Thruway Authority:
“A unified public debt finance mechanism is assumed… No attempt is made to simulate specific MTA credit structures for the transit financing or Thruway credits for the bridge financing (emphasis added).”
But the transit planned as part of the Tappan Zee project would run along the Thruway and over the Tappan Zee, meaning it is strongly connected to the Thruway’s traffic congestion. Bonds may be insufficient to pay for even the transit portion of the project, given the huge cost of the project. Either way, however, the Thruway Authority shouldn’t be counted out as a source of transit funding.
Image: Rendering of one Tappan Zee Bridge replacement option (from Alternatives Analysis for Rehabilitation of Replacement of the TZ Bridge).