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Cornell Comments on Tappan Zee DEIS

by Harriet Cornell

Rockland County Legislator Chairwoman Harriet Cornell made the following statement at a public hearing on the Tappan Zee Bridge Hudson River Crossing Project held at the Palisades Center Mall on Tuesday, February 28, 2012.

While many say the project has taken too long, I call attention to the fact that from the time Governor Pataki announced in 1998 that a new bridge was being planned, we have had four governors and an acting governor’€”each with his own priorities. This governor, Andrew Cuomo, deserves great credit for finding a way to accelerate the project; but I don’t believe this is meant to preclude dialogue and thoughtful consideration of local and regional concerns of what is essentially a new project.

Over the long period of study since 2005, public fears and concerns have, to a great extent, been mitigated by the care taken by the state team to listen to the public and make changes where prudent and to explain ‘€œwhy not,’€ when necessary. Consequently I have a series of suggestions to move us forward.

  1. Ten years ago I was skeptical of the need for a new bridge. I am now convinced that a river crossing that addresses and corrects the substandard structural, operational, mobility, safety, and security features of the existing bridge is essential for the future economic well-being of the Lower Hudson Valley. However, that does not mean that we should not take the extra time necessary to answer the myriad of questions surrounding the financing, construction, visual and environmental impacts before proceeding with this project. I urge an extension of time for public comment.
  2. As the symbol of the lower Hudson Valley, there is no reason this bridge shouldn’t be the most beautiful structure in the New York metropolitan region. Unfortunately, what comes across in the DEIS is a very utilitarian approach to the bridge design. Among the stated goals of this project there is no mention of building a bridge that is worthy of the Majestic Hudson and the lower Hudson Valley; nor does it indicate aesthetic goals. This is best exemplified in the description of the lighting for the proposed bridge: ‘€œThe roadway and superstructure at the main spans are lit at night. Standard cobra head lamp posts are located along the roadway and the shape of the cantilever truss is outlined with individual lights.’€ We would hope that the best lighting engineers would be consulted. Think of the magical lighting of the towers of the George Washington Bridge at night. That’s what we want! A bridge for 150 years deserves to be beautiful.
  3. Because of the bridge’s visual significance and its proposed design life of 150 years, the public rightfully wants a chance to review its appearance and voice their opinions but their ability to conduct this review has been hampered by several factors.

First, there are two engineering options that the public must understand the implications of ‘€“ the short span and long span ‘€“ with dramatic and different visual impacts. The emphasis in the DEIS is on the design of the span, the structure over the navigable channel, and whether it is a cable stay or an arch structure. But the causeway leading to the span is probably more visually prominent to residents and motorists than the actual span. The causeway design is presented as though there is only one engineering solution. It is also challenging to visualize the impacts of a proposed structure that is significantly higher than the existing and, in the case of the long span, has a deeper or thicker cross section.

Secondly, the designs presented in the DEIS are considered preliminary. It is difficult for the public to comment when the designs will undergo substantial change and refinement. In fact, the DEIS indicates that the Design/Build firm may select an entirely different design than that included in the DEIS.

Thirdly, the public has limited tools to understand a project of this complexity. The drawings in the DEIS are problematic for lay people to interpret. If the lead agencies are serious about obtaining genuine, thoughtful input from residents and commuters, then people need to understand what they are being asked to comment on. The best and most efficient way to fully comprehend the impacts is to see a model of the proposed structure, at least where it meets land. A model could actually hasten the review process and dispel misunderstandings.

Supplementing the model should be computer-generated renderings that can be made to illustrate just about any perspective conceivable. Renderings should be prepared showing various perspectives including aerial as well as various street level views. Given the technologies of Computer-aided-design and GIS today, there is no excuse for anyone not to understand what the new bridge will mean to them.

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The RFP for selection of the Design/Build firms will include aesthetic guidelines but it is unclear whether it will include a citizens design review committee’€”and it must! Such a public review process led to a far superior solution for the Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge designed by Christian Menn in Boston than the original Scheme Z design. Committing to such a review process will assuage people’s concerns that the Thruway Authority is downplaying or even ignoring the importance of the design issues.
Consultation and public review are essential and worth the effort a thousand times over.

While the need for the Hudson River Crossing project is understood, the Thruway and DOT do a disservice to themselves and to government in general if they do not recognize public concern over lack of public transit. The proposed 4- 5 plus year construction period will bring substantial noise, dirt, vibration, detours, road closures and lengthened commutes to the communities adjacent to the bridge. In order to restore public trust in this project, the lead agencies should begin by announcing a timetable for recommencing the planning process for mass transit and the corridor improvements. The agency responsible for shepherding this process should be identified. And the Thruway Authority, DOT and its partner agencies must publicly commit to seek funding for construction of mass transit in the future.

Finally, the public needs to know the facts about financing the bridge, transit and road improvements.

Harriet Cornell is the Chairwoman of the Rockland County Legislator.

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