by Steve Knowlton
In 1955 the Tappan Zee Bridge completed the link in the I-287 Corridor chain that devastated the communities in Rockland County through which it passed. Particularly hard hit were the Villages of South Nyack which saw its downtown destroyed and over 150 homes relocated, and Nyack which saw its main East-West thoroughfare transected by an elevated roadway creating an isolated, second commercial district in the Village that was accessible only by auto traffic. At the Westchester landing, Tarrytown also saw scores of homes moved and it suffers daily from the effects of traffic congestion on Route 110 and Main Street. Added to those injuries are the environmental insults of air, noise and light pollution resulting from the ever increasing vehicular traffic on the Thruway through those Villages which continue, largely unabated, today.
In 2000 when Vollmer Associates completed its study of the bridge and traffic in the I287 Corridor, it became clear that the TZ Bridge would need major upgrades and rehabilitation to insure further safe usage. The rehabilitation/upgrade plan was estimated to cost approximately 1.3 billion dollars. Vollmer Associates instead recommended a novel idea: expand the traffic carrying capacity of a new bridge, but also provide for corridor wide mass-transit options. The clear aims of this plan were to lessen the vehicular load throughout the corridor by offering effective mass-transit options; to enhance the quality of life in the communities through which the corridor passes by mitigating and diminishing the environmental impacts of vehicular traffic; improve the economic development environment of those communities served by the corridor; and most importantly, achieve a durable solution for the Corridor’s increasing vehicular traffic. It is estimated that the Bridge carries 135,000 vehicles per day now; conservative estimates put that number at 175,000 vehicles by the year 2025.
After much study and public outreach, on September 25, 2008, officials from NYSDOT, NYSTA, and Metro-North agreed upon a proposal to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge that would accommodate vehicular, bus rapid transit (BRT), and commuter rail traffic. The bridge itself would cost $6.4 billion and after a design and environmental review period, currently is scheduled for construction between 2012 and 2017. Construction of a new $2.9 billion BRT corridor on I-287 between Suffern and Port Chester and a $6.7 billion rail corridor to connect Metro-North stations in Tarrytown and Suffern would be built at a later time. While a project of this scope would certainly have impacts on the affected municipalities, it was forward looking, provided the opportunity for economic growth and would help correct over 60 years of poor planning and environmental insults.
The new ‘€œRiver Crossing Project’€ — essentially nothing more than a new bridge — does nothing to alleviate any of the issues identified in 2000 by Vollmer Associates and experienced daily by the residents of the affected municipalities. Rather than forging a solution to the Corridor’s traffic problems, it will compound them by perpetuating the Bridge as chokepoint. The structures contemplated in the scoping documents (two parallel structures, each with four traffic lanes—which is an effective increase of only a single traffic lane— and ‘€œwide’€ shoulders) will be inadequate to handle to anticipated increased volume—and at a point in time that may well precede the structures’ opening day! Even if the conservative estimates regarding traffic growth are correct those ‘€œwide’€ shoulders will quickly become additional, daily traffic lanes, obviating their stated purpose of providing emergency vehicle access to speed the removal of disabled vehicles and their passenger in an effort to avoid traffic delays.
While the scoping documents indicate that the structures will be built so as not to ‘€œpreclude’€ the addition of mass transit, the costs to include mass-transit at some inchoate future time are calculated only in 2012 dollars, and conservatively at best. To calculate these costs in dollars valued at the start of the project is misleading. Even in 2012 dollars it is conservatively estimated to cost between 500 to 700 million dollars to provide only the structural modifications to the two structures to make a mass transit option possible. The increase in cost due to the delay in implementation of a mass transit option (including I287 Corridor modifications, station building, feeder route improvements, etc.) during initial construction is not calculated, nor the costs in lost economic development opportunity for the municipalities affected nor are the costs related to increased environmental impacts on affected municipalities calculated. The scoping documents are ominously silent in this regard.
It has been clear since at least 2000 that mass-transit along the I287 Corridor is an essential part of the traffic solution for the region. The conversion of the I287 Corridor Project to the River Crossing Project and evisceration of the essential mass-transit option is untenable. The recklessness of these actions betrays the long hours of dedicated volunteer work and travel that citizens had invested in the project over the previous years. During that work we remained cautiously optimistic that the public outreach and citizen participation would lead to substantive progress in the project that would both protect the interests of affected municipalities like Nyack and enhance the effectiveness of the new Tappan Zee Bridge Corridor to move traffic and people efficiently. We were evidently naÃ¯ve in that belief.
The River Crossing Plan, while expedient politically and economically, is grossly inadequate as even a partial solution to the region’s traffic problems.
Steven P. Knowlton is a Nyack Village Trustee and a member of several working and technical advisory groups for the the Tappan Zee Bridge/287 Corridor Project.