ALBANY – It is still too soon to say whether an approximately $4 billion downstate bridge construction project will end up hitting all Thruway users with higher tolls, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo says.
The governor late last month announced that the federal government approved a $1.6 billion loan, the largest-ever borrowing under a certain U.S. Department of Transportation program, that will help keep on track the Thruway Authority’s timetable to construct a new Tappan Zee Bridge connecting Rockland and Westchester counties across the Hudson River.
There has been some concern that the Thruway agency, which earlier this year scrapped a plan to raise tolls on trucks after push back from industry groups, could turn to all Thruway users to help pay for the Tappan Zee project instead of having the 138,000 or so vehicles that use the bridge each day fund it through higher tolls. Original estimates when the project was first projected to cost $5 billion had bridge tolls nearly tripling to $14 each way.
Thruway Executive Director Thomas Madison told reporters that the agency is still running the numbers to determine a final financing plan. The governor said he expects the final bridge cost to be about $4 billion. Asked if a determination had been made to have bridge users pay for the construction or to spread it out across the Thruway system, Cuomo said he is awaiting recommendations from a commission that was created to look at various financing ideas.
“I don’t want to pre-empt them,” Cuomo said, noting that the group is looking at a range of revenue options to help finance the project. “Some of these are subjective choices, so I’m looking forward to the recommendations of that group.”
Administration officials later sought to end any worries that Thruway tolls on the entire system will rise to help fund the single downstate bridge project.”There are no plans for other Thruway users to pay for the bridge,’’ said Matthew Wing, a Cuomo spokesman.
Cuomo said the financing will be determined, in part, by the cost of the project and how long it takes to complete. Officials say the construction will be completed in 2018.
A Wall Street ratings agency lowered the credit rating on Thruway borrowings this week, in part, because of uncertainty over toll increases and the federal loan level. The governor originally asked the federal government to let New York borrow 49 percent of the bridge construction’s costs, but the federal government has not paid more than 33 percent. Cuomo acknowledged it was a big ask, and on Thursday he said President Obama had personally gotten involved in helping New York get the $1.6 billion, 35-year loan. Officials could not predict an interest rate, which won’t be set until the loan’s closing sometime in December.
Madison said that besides the federal loan, the Thruway Authority expects to borrow $2.4 billion for the bridge, which opened in 1955 and is named after former Gov. Malcolm Wilson.
The federal DOT loan interest rate is based on the daily Treasury rate plus 1 percent. If the loan were to have closed Thursday, the interest rate charge would have been 3.62 percent, officials said.
While the bridge is far from the western end of the Thruway, trucking companies and others that use the upstate portion of the road have been closely watching developments in the Tappan Zee’s financing decisions. Also not ruled out is use of the state’s budget to help pay for some of the bridge’s costs.
Cuomo has called the construction project, which has been long discussed, vital to a key Hudson River crossing that is used by commuters and trucks traveling locally and across the Northeast.