In just a few short weeks, the eyes of the nation will be focused on Rockland and Westchester counties as the first span of the new Tappan Zee Bridge opens to traffic.
I will rejoice that day along with the rest of the county, state and nation as we mark an accomplishment that has been years in the making.
We’ve known for decades that the original Tappan Zee Bridge had outlived its usefulness. Amazingly, the state spent nearly $60 million of our money in studies to reach the obvious conclusion.
Not only was the bridge no longer serving its basic function of allowing people to get back and forth between Rockland and Westchester, it was also hampering economic development as our region grows.
A new bridge was the only solution after study after study concluded that the original bridge was too far gone to save.
Rockland residents, particularly those in Nyack, South Nyack and Piermont, have had a bird’s eye view of the largest construction project in the nation for the past four years.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone will be happier to see the new bridge fully completed next year than these residents who have had to contend with the noise and traffic of this massive, nearly $4 billion project.
But this project is far from over – especially for those of us here in Rockland County.
Four billion dollars is a lot of money. So much money that it is hard to imagine.
How are we going to pay that bill?
We still don’t know how much it is going to cost every time someone crosses from Rockland to Westchester.
Gov. Cuomo has promised not to raise the tolls until 2020, which, some say, is conveniently the end of his term.
But what happens next?
As I have said repeatedly since 2012, any increase in the already-high crossing fees would hurt our residents, businesses and future economic growth in the region. A huge toll increase is simply unacceptable.
Is it going to cost $15 to drive from Nyack to Tarrytown? Will Westchester residents have to tack on an extra $15 to the cost of coming to the Palisades Center mall to shop?
Will shoppers stay on the east side of the river, spending their dollars instead in shopping centers such as Ridge Hill in Yonkers or the Danbury Mall in Connecticut?
Think about the county-wide impact of driving business away from the mall, which produces 23 percent of our sales tax revenue.
Government needs to understand that there is a market impact to their decisions. We in Rockland see that from a difference in the price of gasoline between here and across the border in New Jersey. The reason for that difference? State taxes. The result? 50% fewer gas stations and a larger impact on our economy.
We fought for years to stop our bridge toll dollars from subsidizing the state waterways – particularly the upstate canals.
Finally, the state did it, last year shifting responsibility for New York canals and a more than $100 million annual operating deficit from the Thruway Authority to the state Power Authority.
Why not go a step further and combine Thruway and Bridge authorities? Since the Governor is such a proponent of shared services, why not?
We heavily lobbied the state to have a portion of the $5 million plus bank settlement funds set aside to this capital project. We received a vague commitment.
The Lower Hudson Valley has historically been shortchanged when it comes to transit. While improved under my tenure, we still endure a significant “value gap” between what we pay the MTA and the limited service we get in return.
The fully opened new bridge will serve as an economic boom to our region. Unless the tolls are prohibitively expensive.
We have to be ready to fight any increase that will deter people from coming to Rockland to work, shop, dine or otherwise negatively impact our economy and residents.
And the new three-mile long span isn’t the only part of our transportation future.
We also need to remain focused on the Lower Hudson Transit Link that will improve transportation within Rockland County and the region.
This $92 million regional program is being implemented along with the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge and includes a new bus system and numerous improvements between Suffern and Port Chester.
The plan includes funds for upgrades to the Route 59 corridor, including sidewalks on both sides of Route 59 between the Route 306 intersection and Spring Valley High School.
There’s a lot going on to improve transportation in Rockland County. We will celebrate the opening of the first span of the new bridge.
But that’s not the end of this chapter.
We’re prepared to fight for affordable tolls and the improvements promised to us in the Lower Hudson Transit Link.