$256 Million Raid of Clean Water Funds Could Save Drivers as Little as 8 Cents a Toll…but at What Cost?

tzb-construction

Bridge construction on the Tappan Zee. | Photo: Nyack News & Views

A couple of weeks ago, New York State Thruway Authority Chairman Howard Milstein was asked how high the tolls will go on the new Tappan Zee Bridge. The Chairman replied, “Do the math, and you’ll find out that it’s not going to be a high number.”

But doing the math is pretty much impossible when basic numbers about how the bridge will be funded are kept from the public and when requests for information are met with a sea of black ink that blocks out all relevant information.

Also, what is perceived to be a “high number” varies from person to person. Comments made by New York State officials have hinted that future tolls will be in the range of $10 to $14; other estimates have been higher. Conspicuously absent from this discussion is an estimated toll savings from the controversial Clean Water State Revolving Fund loan to the Thruway Authority.

Governor Cuomo’s June 16 press release rationalized the raid on clean water funds as a way to “help keep tolls on the new bridge as low as possible.” When the public and officials questioned the loan, the administration fired back that those who oppose the loans “must be in favor of higher tolls on the new bridge,” though no mention was made of how much these loans will reduce the tolls. But a rough analysis by TSTC of documents released after the New York State Public Authorities Control Board approved the loan on July 16, shows that the toll reduction could be as little as 8 cents per toll. Put another way, an eight cents reduction would represent a 0.057 percent reduction on a hypothetical $14 toll. Even when calculated over a period of five years—the life of the CWSRF loan—is this reduction worth the potential health risks and reduced water quality resulting from a raid of funds used to protect and maintain water quality throughout the state?

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Tappan Zee Bridge Financial Details Finally Released to the Public

Tappan Zee Bridge Project TIFIA-Eligible Costs, Sources and Uses of Funds, as provided to TSTC on July 17, 2014 by the Federal Highway Administration in response to appeal of Tappan Zee Bridge Financial Plan Freedom of Information Act request.

Controversial Clean Water Loan Proceeds, in the Dark

“Is this any way to execute a major infrastructure project?”

So concludes today’s editorial from the Syracuse Post, hometown paper to State Senator John DeFrancisco, one of three sitting members on the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) who, yesterday, rubber-stamped a raid of clean water funds to pay for the New New York Bridge construction projects.

Only a few weeks ago, DeFrancisco offered fighting words that provided hope to the advocacy community that has been shut out of the decision-making process on this controversial loan. In an interview with Capital Tonight’s Liz Benjamin, the Senator stated: “I have no compunction at all about voting ‘no’ if it’s not the proper use of money or there’s not a full financing plan, because the people should know how they’re paying for this thing.” And yet, the PACB—including Senator DeFrancisco—unanimously approved the first installment of $511 million in low-interest loans from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, despite the fact that a full financing plan was not provided either to the PACB or the public.

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Criticism of Tappan Zee EFC Loan Piling Up

A pivotal moment in the three-step approval process for the Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) loan to fund the Tappan Zee Bridge project will happen tomorrow when the Public Authorities Control Board will take up discussion of the loan. Unanimous approval from the board is required for the loan to move forward to its next and final vote by the NYS Thruway Authority Board. In the wake of the EFC Board’s unanimous vote of approval, and in anticipation of tomorrow’s vote, the media has been nearly overwhelmed by criticism of the many facets of the controversial loan:

FINANCIAL TRANSPARENCY

Conclusively, as a matter of both law and public policy, I cannot support this proposal and, in fact believe that it should be withdrawn or left to fail on its merits, or lack thereof. Furthermore, as a member of the Public Authorities Control Board, I feel duty-bound by Section 51(3) of the Public Authorities Law to advocate against the passage of this proposal because it fails the necessary statutory test by being totally without “commitments of funds sufficient to finance the acquisition and construction of such project.”
- Bill Perkins, New York State Senator

From Day One we’ve been waiting for a complete financing plan that would include the all-important toll structure. Even after the feds came through with a $1.5 billion loan that required the filing of a financial plan, we still don’t know squat. Every attempt to FOIL the information has been denied by both the feds and the state, for no good reason.
-
Fred LeBrun, Albany Times Union

In a two-page letter, the feds denied Juva-Brown’s [FOIL] request, saying the Thruway Authority had advised them to do so. The U.S. Department of Transportation said Cuomo’s financial plan — the basis for a $1.6 billion loan request — was “hypothetical,” “misleading” and “inaccurate.”  DOT spokeswoman Nancy Singer didn’t quite answer how that could be. “New York met the requirements” for the loan, she said.
- Andrea Bernstein, Senior Editor for Politics & Policy, WNYC

When there was a discussion about the Tappan Zee Bridge, I tried to get the executive director of the Thruway Authority to tell me how they were financing the bridge and there were no answers. They were going to appoint somebody and so forth. So, that’s one thing I want to get out of that meeting when it happens is that in order to decide one component of financing, you gotta know the whole financial package.
- John DeFrancisco, New York State Senator

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Public Authorities Control Board Must Get Answers to Important Questions Before Approving EFC TZB Loan

According to a 2008 report from the DEC regarding wastewater infrastructure needs of NYS, "The need documented in the [CWNS] 2008 survey is expected to be  significantly higher than the 2004 CWNS." | Photo: EPA's Clean Watershed Needs Survey, 2004.

According to a 2008 report from the DEC, “Looking at long-term capital costs, New York’s wastewater infrastructure needs continue to rise, as documented in EPA’s recently published CWNS.” | Photo: EPA’s Clean Watershed Needs Survey, 2004.

As the New NY Bridge construction project continues into its second summer season, questions persist about the transparency and legitimacy of the financial plan for the project. A few weeks ago, Governor Cuomo announced that the New York State Thruway Authority would be receiving $511.45 million in low- and no-interest loans from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). The fund is traditionally used to upgrade water infrastructure across the state – through the NYS Environmental Facilities Corporation, which jointly administers the funds with the Department of Environmental Conservation. The announcement that the loans would pay for many environmental mitigation projects related to the bridge project and the circumvented public review and legislative process to enable this loan riled up environmental, transportation and government groups statewide. The “unconventional” use was noted by EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck, scores of elected officials and seven newspaper editorials.

As noted by Tri-State and others in a letter to the EFC, projects receiving CWSRF funds must be included in the Intended Use Plan – the list of projects to be funded for a given year. The bridge construction project was not in the version made available for public review and comment earlier this year, but rather only added by amendment as a “minor modification” last month along with seven other projects totaling approximately $130 million, bringing the total request of funds to $641 million.
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Groups Call on New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation to Reconsider Tappan Zee Bridge Loan

UPDATE: EFC Board of Directors approves loan with 5-0 vote. Yesterday, Tri-State and eight other environmental and good government groups sent a letter to New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation Board of Directors calling upon them to reject, or at least postpone a vote on, a $511 million no-interest and low-interest loan for the New NY Bridge construction project. The [...]

Variable Pricing on the New NY Bridge: No More Breaks for Big Trucks

As the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project sails along, a recent letter in The Journal News called for free crossings for motorists between the off-peak hours from 1 to 5 a.m., to encourage drivers, especially commercial drivers, to travel when there is presumably less congestion.

While the goal to shift vehicles to off-peak hours as a way to reduce congestion has been proven successful in the area, around the country and internationally, with research even showing that non-work travel constitutes up to 56 percent of trips during the a.m. peak travel period and 69 percent of trips during the p.m. peak, the author’s proposed traffic solution misses the mark. The problem here is twofold: First, according the NYSTA’s own consultants, trucks already are not paying their fair share. According to one report, road damage caused by a single 18-wheeler is equivalent to that of 9,600 cars, yet trucks pay “only five times the rate of the average passenger vehicle,” according to NYSTA Executive Director Tom Madison. By some calculations, trucks cause up to 99 percent of all road damage.

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NYS Thruway Authority Board Must Address TZB Task Force Recommendations

The NYS Thruway Authority was a key member of the Mass Transit Task Force, but the NYSTA Board is still yet to formally address the group’s recommendations.

On Thursday, the New York State Thruway Authority Board of Directors held its first meeting since the New NY Bridge Mass Transit Task Force issued its final [...]

TZB Transit Task Force Recommends New Modern, Faster Bus System in I-287 Corridor

The New NY Bridge Mass Transit Task Force (of which Tri-State is a member) issued its Final Transit Recommendations today. The 119-page report details transit improvements along the Tappan Zee Bridge/I-287 corridor in Rockland and Westchester Counties. The recommendations propose sleeker, new buses with WiFi technology; bus stops transformed from a patch of grass or pavement to a station with pre-board fare collection, seating, shelter, and real-time bus information; and new technology improvements that will give buses lead time at intersections and improve travel flow on I-287. With the implementation of these recommendations by Governor Cuomo and the New York State Thruway Authority, transit between these two counties can be transformed from an experience that is tolerated, to an experience that is preferred. And, the Hudson Valley will have secured a big win.

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Budget Provision Could Make All-Electronic Tolling a Reality throughout New York

Cashless, all-electronic toll plaza at the Henry Hudson Bridge (top) and an open-road AET gantry on the Garden State Parkway. | Photos: mta.info and NJ Monthly

Cashless, all-electronic toll plaza at the Henry Hudson Bridge (top) and an open-road AET gantry on the Garden State Parkway. | Photos: mta.info and NJ Monthly

Toll plazas throughout New York could soon be all-electronic, if a proposal in Governor Cuomo’s draft Executive Budget is approved. Tri-State has been advocating for all-electronic tolling (AET) since 1999, but to date, the only fully-cashless toll facility in New York is the MTA’s Henry Hudson Bridge. This conversion has been widely applauded and has approval ratings of 95 percent from users. Cashless tolling reduces congestion, improves safety by reducing the “weaving and lane-jockeying” associated with toll plazas, and has air quality benefits too.

The New York State Thruway Authority has also been making plans to convert to cashless AET for some time, but implementation has been slow going. The slow roll-out on NYSTA facilities, and delayed expansion to other bridges in the MTA system, has been tied to a concern over the lack of enforcement capability against those who fail to pay the toll:

This bill would strengthen the ability of New York’s four authorities that operate toll facilities—the Thruway Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Bridge Authority, and the Port Authority—to effectively manage and enforce the collection of tolls throughout the State. Toll violators cost the tolling authorities tens of millions of dollars each year, and the current law is outdated and ineffective in enforcing against persistent violators. Some persistent violators owe in excess of $100,000 in tolls and fees.

This provision changes that: not only would the proposal double the fine for failure to pay a toll (to $100, currently $50), a vehicle owner who doesn’t pay will receive “a nasty surprise when they try to register their cars at the Department of Motor Vehicles.”

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