280 Public Meetings Later…

A bus rapid transit system connecting destinations throughout the I-287 corridor in Westchester and Rockland Counties had strong regional support. But it appears to have been dropped from the project.

“One of the most important findings is that traffic forecasts clearly demonstrate a demand for travel in the corridor that cannot be accommodated by highway improvements alone.  The need to include transit improvements in a dedicated right-of-way across the corridor is indicated.”- Tappan Zee Bridge/I-287 Alternatives Analysis, 2006.

Nearly ten years and 280 stakeholder meetings led to a regional consensus that transit should be included in plans to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge.

But in a few hours earlier this week, Gov. Cuomo changed course. On Monday he asked the White House to “fast track” the Tappan Zee Bridge project. On Tuesday the White House agreed, including it as one of 14 infrastructure projects being expedited across the country.

“Fast tracking” in this case means dropping plans for transit, “re-scoping” the project so it consists only of a bridge replacement, and starting over with an entirely new environmental study. If the Tappan Zee Bridge project moves forward without the bus rapid transit component, New York might have its own transit loss to rival New Jersey’s cancellation of the ARC rail tunnel.

For decades, the state has been studying how to improve the cross-Hudson commute along I-287 and launched a formal environmental review in 2002. After 280 meetings, including 10 public visioning sessions and detailed input from advocates, NYSDOT pursued five alternatives and all but the “No Build” alternative included transit. In 2009, the state said it would pursue bus rapid transit as the cross corridor transit option and launched transit-oriented-development workshops — with the help of Regional Plan Association, Project for Public Spaces, and Reconnecting America — to help nine municipalities explore development opportunities as a result of the bridge project.  The sessions were well attended and highly regarded.

BRT was selected because it was the most effective transit mode for suburb-to-suburb commuters and thus predicted to do the most to reduce traffic in the corridor. BRT is projected to move over 50,000 commuters daily and connect economic centers such as White Plains and the “Platinum Mile” of office parks with residential areas, regional destinations, and existing rail lines.  The need for such a system has been underscored by recent press reports describing how the Platinum Mile has lost tenants to urban centers with access to transit.

Advocacy groups often criticize agencies and government for closed and esoteric planning processes. Throwing out the earnest, thorough, and open state process surrounding the Tappan Zee Bridge/I-287 project to begin the process anew erodes public confidence and faith in government.

Today, the Journal News reports that the Federal Highway Administration, which has supplanted NYSDOT as the lead agency, will host two more public scoping briefings to discuss the bridge project on October 25 and 27.

Advocates and local elected officials cautioned against moving forward without a transit component. In a statement, TSTC Executive Director Kate Slevin warned that “the state may be missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reduce traffic and greenhouse gas emissions and create a transit backbone for future development in the Hudson Valley.” Regional Plan Association’s Jeff Zupan told the NY Times that “What they’re basically saying to the driver is, ‘We’re going to raise your toll [to pay for the replacement] and by the way we’re not going to improve public transit.’ ” Rockland County Executive Scott Vanderhoef said to the Journal News that “You can’t just throw a bridge down there and say we’ll build the rest of it later.”

A bus rapid transit system was always the cheapest component of the Tappan Zee/I-287 project. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be put on the fast track as well.

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