Thruway Authority Approves Clean Water Funds For New NY Bridge

Aug 7, 2014

Credit WAMC, Allison Dunne

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's plan to use clean water funds to help pay for the new Tappan Zee Bridge has been approved by a key state board. However, a federal agency is reviewing the plan, and environmental groups are among those in opposition.

The state Thruway Authority board Wednesday voted to accept the $256 million, five-year loan from the state's Environmental Facilities Corporation, or EFC. Environmental groups have opposed the loans, saying it's wrong to finance a bridge with federal funds intended for drinking water and sewage treatment projects. Paul Gallay is president of Ossining-based Riverkeeper.

“This makes a mockery of the Clean Water Act infrastructure and river restoration loan program,” says Gallay. “It’s not going to hold up to independent scrutiny, whether by EPA, or the courts, or both.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing the plan, and a spokesman says the agency will decide by the end of the summer. He says the funding use is unique, at least in New York and in recent EPA staff memory. He says part of EPA’s review is looking at whether bridge construction activities could be eligible for Clean Water Act funding.  

The Thruway Authority released a statement from Chairman Howard Milstein that reads, quote, “The Thruway Authority remains committed to an unprecedented level of environmental protection on the New NY Bridge project. The EFC Clean Water State Revolving Fund loan approved by the Thruway board of directors on August 6 will support more than $255 million in measures to protect the Hudson River and mitigate environmental impacts of the project. By saving $35 million in finance costs, the loans will also help keep tolls on the new bridge as low as possible.”

Democratic Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti represents the area in Westchester where the bridge is being built and sits on the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions.

“There is no evidence that borrowing from the Clean Water fund will save money in the long run on the cost of the construction of these two spans across the Hudson River,” says Abinanti. “The plan appears to be to borrow money from the federal government to pay off these loans and so we’re stretching out the period over which we’re going to borrow money which in the end is going to cost more.”

Abinanti adds:

“We are taking money out of a clean water fund that is desperately needed to pay for clean water and sewer projects throughout the state,” Abinanti says. “So we’re imposing additional costs on the communities that would have gotten these monies at a low interest rate, and their property taxpayers are going to have to pay more for the projects that they need to do.”

Democratic Mayor of New Rochelle Noam Bramson is among a few Westchester mayors who support the plan.

“In the context of this particular project, and given the range of choices that are available, I think this is an appropriate use of the fund.”

He adds:

“We recognize the vital importance of the Tappan Zee Bridge reconstruction to the economy of the entire region and also recognize that putting a financing package together entails a difficult balancing act, and it’s necessary to cobble together financing from multiple sources,” Bramson says.

Gallay says Riverkeeper will continue fighting the plan.

“This fight is too important to let go through. Riverkeeper is going to be in the middle of that fight whether that requires us to go to court or not. It’s where our members expect us to be whenever government action runs this far afoul of environmental laws designed to protect the Hudson River,” says Gallay. “So we’re working on legal papers and we’re watching EPA’s action very carefully.”

Meanwhile, the Thruway Authority plans to request a second $256 million loan, perhaps next year. The first span of the new twin-span bridge connecting Rockland and Westchester Counties is scheduled to open in 2016, and the bridge should be complete in 2018. Dredging for the new bridge began last summer and construction is under way.

Copyright 2014 WAMC and The Associated Press. All rights reserved.