Home Public Transit Policy On burdening the future with decisions today

On burdening the future with decisions today

by Benjamin Kabak

Someone once thought it was a good idea to build a bridge across the widest part of the Hudson River.

Over the past few years as New York and New Jersey have engaged in infrastructure expansion project, planners on both sides of the Hudson River have had to make some key decisions, and in nearly every instance, the decision has been to trim back and cut. The future is going to pay for this dearly.

The obvious example of course concerns the ARC Tunnel. Claiming concerns over cost overruns and, later, project design, Gov. Chris Christie pulled the plug on a project that had been funded and planned. Instead of redesigning it to save money or reengineering it on the New York side to improve it, the New Jersey executive cut it without proposing an alternative. The future is left with nothing, but that’s only the most egregious example.

In New York City, the MTA’s major subway expansion project has seen something fall off from the original plans. The 7 line has lost a key station at 41st St. and 10th Avenue while the Second Ave. Subway, being built in phases, has gone from four tracks to three to two. As I joked on April Fools, they might as well just cut it down to one.

Now, why is this important? After all, we need these projects to open sooner rather than later, and if the choice is between a smaller version of the project and nothing at all, I’d take the smaller version ten times out of ten. Costs aren’t going down any time soon, and it’s too much of a hassle to get a major initiative off the drawing board.

What we forget today when we cut though is the future. Planning decisions we make in the here and now have ramifications practically forever. Take, for instance, this NPR story about the location of the Tappan Zee Bridge. As David Kestenbaum noted, the Tappan Zee Bridge is in a terrible location. It’s amidst a 15-mile stretch of the river that is the Hudson at its widest. Four miles south and 15 miles north, the Hudson tapers off significantly, and the decision to build a bridge there seems foolish. Kestenbaum explains why:

I started digging through newspaper clippings from the 1940s and 1950s. It turns out, the bridge was part of a much larger project: The New York State Thruway, one of the first modern highway systems. The clippings also reveal something suspicious. There was an alternate proposal for a bridge at a narrower spot nearby. The proposal was put forward by top engineers at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But that proposal was killed by New York governor Thomas E. Dewey. The New York Thruway was his baby; in a 1954 speech he proclaimed that it would be “the world’s greatest highway.”

…If the bridge had been built just a bit south of its current location — that is, if it had been built across a narrower stretch of the river — it would have been in the territory that belonged to the Port Authority.

As a result, the Port Authority — not the State of New York — would have gotten the revenue from tolls on the bridge. And Dewey needed that toll revenue to fund the rest of the Thruway. So Dewey was stuck with a three-mile-long bridge.

As Kestenbaum notes, now that the bridge has aged and degraded, someone is going to have to spend a few billion dollars to repair it. We can’t now correct the mistakes of the past either because “it’s too late now: Highways and towns have grown up based on the bridge’s current location.” The replacement bridge will cost a lot, and eventually, it too will be pared down. Already, the transit options are being threatened with elimination.

And so as the city looks to build and expand, we must remember that what happens today matters. It matters in the short term because we have to pay for it, but it also matters in the long term because eventually someone else will have to pay even more to fix or replace it. Repairing the Tappan Zee Bridge would seem less onerous had it been moved one way or another in the 1950s, but leaders too concerned with photo ops and ribbon-cutting ceremonies never want to take into account someone else’s future.

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Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines August 24, 2011 - 9:00 am

[…] Ben Kabak Files a Nice Piece on the Lessons of the Tappan Zee […]

Al D August 24, 2011 - 9:20 am

Good find. I always wondered why they built this bridge at the widest part (or 1 of the widest parts) of the river. Politics once again, the bane of progress and common sense it seems…

Bolwerk August 24, 2011 - 10:08 am

I think the rule is, the PA has control over cross-state projects within 25 miles of the Statue of Liberty. The Thruway is literally a mile or so past that line, IIRC.

Somebody saddled Dewey too!

Stu Sutcliffe August 24, 2011 - 9:39 am

But wouldn’t building the bridge four miles to the south also have meant that the bridge would have needed to be built to a sufficient height to get to the top of the Palisades, just like the GWB? Where the bridge lands in Rockland County is of comparatively lower elevation.

Toll revenue aside, the additional elevation probably would have meant additional construction costs.

Doug August 24, 2011 - 10:00 am

Not so clear – the center of the bridge has to be 165 feet above water to allow ships to pass. Having the bridge maintain that height to reach the palisades may not have added to the cost.

Douglas John Bowen August 24, 2011 - 9:49 am

True, Gov. Christie offered no replacement for the highly flawed ARC. But others did and have, and some of us would argue that the subsequent offerings (Amtrak’s “Gateway tunnel” project, for instance) address the future, per Mr. Kabak’s concerns, far better than ARC did or does.

So in this instance, the future is not (yet) left with “nothing.”

Chris August 24, 2011 - 10:04 am

The future wasn’t left with nothing on ARC – they have the option to build the tunnel, just like we did and still do. There’s no particular reason to expect that the cost of building it will go up in real terms.

Bolwerk August 24, 2011 - 10:15 am

Heck, maybe new tunneling technologies will drive excavation costs down. OTOH, a lot of the effort is getting NYS, the PA, NJT, NJ itself, the Feds, the MTA(?), and sharky city real estate interests to agree on something. That’s a long process, and Christie threw away 20 critical years that presented a flawed, but workable, solution.

Even if something does eventually happen, a lot of people got screwed for a long time.

Chris August 24, 2011 - 3:44 pm

Nothing’s thrown away – construction can start pretty much when someone decides they’d like to pay for it.

Let’s not forget that Chris Christie is not the only party in the world with a couple billion to spend. There’s a huge amount of private cash on the sidelines waiting to invest in opportunities if the value demonstrates itself. Unfortunately, the transportation markets (highway and passenger rail in particular) have been broken such that this is unlikely to occur.

Ignoring whatever technical problems may exist with the specific ARC proposal, people mostly agree that additional capacity under the Hudson would have huge economic benefits – either we’re all wrong about that (perhaps true) or something is broken in the price mechanism that converts economic benefit into profitability for its provider (more likely).

Bolwerk August 24, 2011 - 7:09 pm

The safe money is the stars aren’t going to align for another cross-Hudson rail project at least until the degenerate who unilaterally canceled it is out of the picture – then the decades-long negotiation process can restart.

What was thrown away was a present investment opportunity opportunity and future returns on that investment.

Jerrold August 24, 2011 - 10:23 am

But Ben, what was the reason he did not build it further NORTH?
THAT would have been even further from the “territory” of the Port Authority.

al August 24, 2011 - 3:45 pm

1) were railroad suburbs and some car based suburbs in Rockland and Orange Counties they wanted to link.
2) is the Bear Mountain Bridge spanning the Hudson River (completed 1924).
3) is the Cross Westchester Expressway that is part of a ring road around NYC.
4) is the pass through the hills at Suffern along the Ramapo River.

Nathanael October 15, 2011 - 8:59 pm

The Bear Mountain Bridge was the correct location further north…. but adding tolls to an old bridge wouldn’t sell, so…. we get the bridge in the stupidest possible location.

Larry Littlefield August 24, 2011 - 10:27 am

As I’ve noted, it is the future, with most of the key decisions having been made in the past. The next 20 years will be about paying for that past.

On transportation, we’re in preservation and planned shrinkage mode. If we get ESA, the one station Flushing Extension, and the three station Broadway line extension (ie. SAS), we will have done well.

John-2 August 24, 2011 - 10:36 am

One option with the Tappan Zee — if a new bridge with rail capacity is used — would be to make sure it has access to the northeastern freight rail network, so that the bridge would be useful not just for passenger rail connections during the daytime, but off-hours commercial rail, which would knock 100 miles off the current detour to get freight between New England at the Middle Atlantic states, as well as shorter access into the Metro NYC area.

Charge CSX and other freight handlers tolls to take their trains across the new Tappan Zee, and you’ll have another revenue stream besides just the vehicle tolls and taxes to finance the bonds for the new bridge.

Max S. (WilletsPoint-SheaStadium) August 24, 2011 - 11:45 am

A little role reversal… freight rail would have to ride on our public rail right of ways!

SEAN August 24, 2011 - 12:35 pm

It does in a few places. I’ve sene freight service in Ridgewood NJ & Mineola NY.

Walter August 24, 2011 - 1:16 pm

And you can use a rail corridor connecting west of the Hudson to MNRR’s Hudson, or dare I wish, New Haven lines and lose much of the need for the uber-expensive cross-harbor freight tunnel. The
Harlem Line is pretty useless for freight, but who knows what could happen if it had a connection to the freight network south of the Beacon Line.

cl94 August 24, 2011 - 11:52 pm

To answer the question about building the bridge further north- the Thruway runs through river valleys. If the bridge were any further north, the Thruway would have had to cross mountains or backtrack north 10 miles. It was cheaper to just build the bridge at its current location than it was to build an extra 20-30 miles of 6 lane highway so that the bridge could be 1/3 the length.

A freight connection would be nice, but current plans have track gradients 2+ times what can be used for freight rail. The entire western rail approach (all 1-2 miles of it) will be in a tunnel. We’re talking an extra $500+ million if you want a freight connection, and the people in Central and Western NY are already against using state funds for the project. It’s those ignorant people up where I live that block transit expansions and the like, forgetting that downstate tax dollars pay for the upstate bridge and highway projects.

Justin August 25, 2011 - 2:00 am

Since the 1970s, which saw construction of the Second Avenue Subway tunnel fragments, the plan was always to have 2 tracks for the Second Avenue Subway.

Larry Littlefield August 25, 2011 - 1:45 pm

Here a burden for the future. The MTA plans to remove the tunnel boring machines from Second Avenue and tear them up for scrap, rather than leaving them in the rock for use later.

That would mean an new launch box would have to be created to extend the SAS southward, rather than simply moving the spoils out by train at night via the 63rd Street Tunnel.

Who made that decision, and why?

I’d like to see the SAS extend at least down to 42nd Street, so a T could actually run if the demand warrented.

Tapping across a new Tappan Zee, but not taking the train :: Second Ave. Sagas October 12, 2011 - 4:35 pm

[…] we will once again make the wrong decision with respect to the Tappan Zee Bridge. Funny how history just keeps repeating itself. Share Tweet Categories : Public Transit […]


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