A coalition of environmental and advocacy organizations and Assembly members met via conference call on Thursday to express their dismay over the approval by the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation to use, for the first time, clean water funds for a transportation project. The critics say using the funds for the bridge project could have negative consequences for every community across the state.
The new Tappan Zee Bridge will span the Hudson River with eight car and four emergency lanes, a dedicated commuter bus lane, and a bicycle-pedestrian path. Construction costs are expected to total nearly $4 billion.
The state Environmental Facilities Corporation Board of Directors on Thursday approved a controversial proposal to issue up to $511 million in zero interest and low-interest loans to the NYS Thruway Authority for projects related to the bridge construction. The proposal to grant the loans states that it “... will have no impact on EFC’s ability to fully fund projects anywhere in New York State.”
But critics note that the funds are dedicated to clean water projects, not transportation infrastructure.
Hudson Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay explained that it is federal money designated under the Clean Water Act to improve wastewater treatment infrastructure and state waterways. Gallay says the funding has never been used to advance transportation construction projects like the Tappan Zee. "EPA wrote to the Environmental Facilities Corporation raising eight questions on the basic eligibility of these project elements for Clean Water Act funding and also how funding that is in an account dedicated only to municipalities could possibly be used to make a loan to the NYS Thruway Authority. The Environmental Facilities Corporation said that New York State is a municipality of New York State. No actual response to the idea that there needed to be public notice of the proposal to fund the plan."
NYS Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Chair James Brennan, a Democrat from Brooklyn, is both disappointed and disturbed that EFC approved the loans. "My counsel determined that these funds are supposed to be for municipalities. It seems ludicrous to try to pass the state of New York off as a municipality. These funds are clearly, historically, been intended to address wastewater treatment, sewage treatment needs of municipalities. A number of municipalities have indicated that their systems are at risk of imminent failure. So it just seems completely inappropriate to be drawing down these funds for this particular purpose."
Manhattan Assembly Democrat Brian Kavanagh chairs the NYS Caucus of Environmental Legislators. He finds it curious how rapidly the idea moved from proposal to approval. "There are so many unanswered questions about this proposal. About the origins of it. About the legal basis for a decision that these funds can be appropriately spent. And its affect on the otherwise intended purpose of this, on infrastructure spending that is really desperately needed throughout the state. EFC and others are making the assertion that this will not have a direct affect, but a transaction of this scale and moving this rapidly certainly warrants slowing down and asking the appropriate questions."
New York League of Conservation Voters Director of Public Policy and Government Relations Christopher Goekin says granting the move sets a troubling and novel precedent with implications beyond New York State. "This is federal money. I had spoken with some members of Congress about this and they are concerned about the precedent that this would set in other states. Maybe other states looking to build a causeway or a bridge intended for automobiles. They would love to get their hands on this big pot of money and spend it in ways not intended under current law."
The Public Authorities Control Board and the EPA also must approve the funding plan.