This weekend, just days ahead of a primary that polls say he’ll win handily, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will take the wheel of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s refurbished 1932 Packard for a celebratory drive across the replacement for the old Tappan Zee Bridge.
The gleaming new two-span bridge formally was undertaken as a project of the state Thruway Authority. Politically, however, it’s the ultimate Andrew M. Cuomo Production, showcasing the governor at his hyper-focused, get-it-done best — and his blustering, dissembling worst.
The completion of the bridge, whose first span opened a year ago, is at least six months behind the schedule laid out in the Thruway’s original bond-offering statements. This isn’t outrageous by mega-project standards, though it doesn’t line up with Cuomo’s frequently repeated claim that the project is (miraculously) coming in both on time and on budget.
On the money side, Cuomo and the Thruway Authority skillfully managed expectations going into the project five years ago, combining the initial $3.14 billion design-build contract estimate with $800 million in never-fully specified contingencies to come up with an oft-cited $3.9 billion figure for the total cost.
A few months ago, however, the consortium building the bridge made known that it’ll seek $900 million in payments above the contract amounts, which would drive the net total well above $4 billion. And interest costs easily could add another $2 billion to the final price tag.
Five years into what he frequently boasts is the nation’s largest single infrastructure project, Cuomo still hasn’t laid out a full and detailed plan of how he intends to pay for it. The likely answer is hardly a mystery, though: Tolls probably will need to rise to at least $10 from the current $4.75 base for passenger cars, higher for commercial vehicles.
At least Tappan Zee commuters will see some value for that money. In contrast to the hemmed-in 1954 structure it’s replacing, the new bridge(s) will have considerably more traffic capacity (including breakdown lanes).
If the Thruway had taken the sensible step of raising tolls in stages — in, say, 50-cent annual increments starting in 2016 — it could already be taking in an added $40-$60 million a year in added revenues to pay off the looming bill. By promising to delay any toll hike for two more years, Cuomo is pushing costs into the future while perpetuating the politically self-serving fantasy that a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project can be accomplished at no visible direct cost to anyone.
This much, at least, already is set in precast concrete: Thanks to a last-minute provision in the state budget, the new Tappan Zee bridge officially will bear the name of the governor’s father, Mario M. Cuomo.
This is fitting in an ironic sense, since decisions made by Mario Cuomo have been haunting the Thruway Authority’s finances for nearly 30 years.
To close budget gaps at the start of his third term in 1991, the elder Cuomo (with legislative approval) forced a nearly debt-free Thruway system to issue $80 million in bonds to take over the money-losing New York State Barge Canal. Over the next 25 years, the Thruway Authority spent roughly $1 billion on the operating expenses and capital projects for what became the state Canal Corp.
Even with mounting maintenance costs, the old Tappan Zee Bridge spun off an annual surplus to the rest of the Thruway system. The more expensive replacement leaves the authority strapped for cash when its pavement conditions are seriously deteriorating and most of its other bridges date back to the 1950s.
Two years ago, Cuomo gave the Thruway some fiscal relief by shifting the Canal Corp. to yet another off-budget state entity he controls, the Power Authority. But at the same time, he withdrew state budget operating subsidies for the Thruway that he had established just a few years earlier.
Ultimately, no matter how the figures are sliced, a portion of whatever higher tolls (or taxes) needed to pay for the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge will be traceable to the budgetary gimmickry of . . . Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
Of course, this is the kind of detail lost on voters. For the current Gov. Cuomo, the bridge represents a triumph of political brand placement. Like the Coca Cola can in a movie scene — except much, much bigger.