The state on Thursday got a big crane for a new Tappan Zee Bridge, but they still don’t have a final financial plan to pay for the $3.9 billion bridge.
Thomas Madison, the executive director of the state Thruway Authority, testified Thursday that the agency is still developing its toll structure to fund the massive project and offered no timetable when a soon-to-be-formed task force would recommend what the tolls would be.
“We do not have a complete financing plan for the bridge,” Madison testified at a state budget hearing in Albany. “What we have, and what I was mentioning earlier, is the intent to empanel this toll and financing task force.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, questioned how the state could be moving forward quickly with the new bridge between Westchester and Rockland counties without a clear estimate of how it will pay for the bridge.
The federal government last fall provided the state a $1.6 billion loan, and on Thursday, one of the world’s largest floating cranes, the “I Lift NY,” arrived in the Port of New York and New Jersey to be used to replace the current bridge over the Hudson River. The bridge is supposed to open in 2018.
“So a $3 point-something-billion project is going on, and you’re just estimating that possibly the tolls will cover the financing, but there is no plan?” DeFrancisco said. “And there’s going to be a group that comes together to try to figure out a plan after the fact?”
Madison said the Thruway has a clear sense of the costs and that toll revenue from the bridge would fund the project and its ongoing operation. The current toll is $5 roundtrip, but there has been speculation could be as high as $14 on the new bridge.
“We know and can project what our revenue needs are going out over the course of the next several years,” Madison responded. “What we need to do with the assistance of this toll and revenue task force is to refine specifically what that plan of project finance will look like, what the toll level will need to be at the bridge.”
Madison offered no time schedule when the task force would start its work or when it would report its findings. He said it would also look at other revenue streams to fund the bridge, such as additional state and federal aid.
DeFrancisco asked what would happen if the task force comes back and decides that toll revenue would be unable to cover the bridge’s expenses.
“And is there a back-up plan in case (tolls) are not sufficient?” he asked.
“They will be sufficient,” Madison said.
“Okay, you heard it here,” DeFrancisco responded.
Madison reiterated that there no plans to raise tolls on the 570-mile-long Thruway or the bridge this year. He said any toll increases on the bridge or the Tappan Zee Bridge would be independent of one another.
A 45 percent toll increase on truck traffic on the Thruway was beaten back by lawmakers and business groups in 2012. But business groups have warned that one is undoubtedly coming as the Thruway struggles with growing costs and limited revenue.
Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s last fall downgraded the Thruway’s finances.
“Only in Albany can you embark on one of the biggest construction projects in our history without having a financial plan you are willing to share with the public in place,” said Brian Sampson, executive director of Unshackle Upstate, a Rochester-based business group. “The lack of a plan makes us believe that a substantial toll increase has already been quietly agreed upon and will be enacted next year.”