What the Tappan Zee Bridge tells us About Dewey, Cuomo and Governing Today

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The current Tappan Zee Bridge, now being replaced ... at last.

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The current Tappan Zee Bridge, now being replaced ... at last.

The Tappan Zee is the longest bridge in New York State, so perhaps it is fitting that it took the state decades to decide what to do about the traffic and structural problems that dogged the crossing almost since its completion.

But a new book by Philip Plotch, a professor at Saint Peter’s College, reveals in deep detail the extent to which the long debate over whether and how to fix or replace the bridge was shaped not by river contours or engineering needs but by politics, personalities and the leadership styles of five governors. In “Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject,” Plotch exposes the shortcomings of the bridge replacement project now underway and the planning system that produced it. City Limits spoke to Plotch earlier this month:

Q: How did decisions about how and where the bridge was constructed create the need for this decades-long debate over how to fix or replace it?

The bridge was built at a horrible location to build a bridge, where the river is three miles wide, where the foundations don’t go down to bedrock. There’s not enough steel and it is used in a way that allowed it to rust: Usually you design roadways so the salt is channelled under the structure but on the Tappan Zee the roadway salt drains onto the structure itself. There are gaps in the steel that allow the water to get in.

Q: The bridge was the key link in the New York State Thruway, the legacy of Gov. Thomas Dewey. The book talks about how some of Dewey’s tactics sewed distrust in towns near the bridge that lingered into the 21st century. What was his approach?

The New York State Thruway was an amazing feat at the time it was built. It was the first superhighway. The U.S. had never seen anything like that before. Today, you can’t do that because there’s a huge amount of concern for the environment, for neighborhoods. Back then if Dewey had opened up the process to the community and gotten everybody’s buy-in and explained exactly where he was going to put it, I don’t think we’d have had a New York State Thruway. Instead of telling the whole state. “This is where the route is going to go” — because then people in Syracuse and Utica and elsewhere could have banded together to stop it — he sort of did it piecemeal. There are lessons about how to get things done and they are very sobering lessons.

Q: In the more recent battle over the bridge, public participation played a complicated role. On one hand, there was so much participation that the project kept getting derailed as one or another interest groups would mount an objection. On the other, there were facts about the project that weren’t revealed. What was the deal?

The planners between 2000 and 2011 did an amazing job with public participation, laying out as much information as they could about all the different alternatives, about the different alignments, about different kinds of choices that could be made, different ways of designing it. They held over 400 public meetings. They had committees, subcommittees and websites. But the most important part they kept secret — which was, how could you actually pay for what was going to be a $20 billion project. If you keep that secret, it’s hard for people to make a rational decision because they’ll say, ‘We want the best.’

Q: The delays in planning the new bridge were so extensive that a number of transit fads seemed to fade in and out of favor as the Tappan Zee planners considered them. Did those hangups help New York avoid adopting a policy that we might have regretted?

You are absolutely right. First, there was transit demand management and then it became travel demand management and then light rail and then monorail and then the HOV [High Occupancy Vehicle] lane and then the HOT [High Occupancy Toll] lane and then bus rapid transit. It wasn’t necessarily that these were bad ideas and we shouldn’t look into them, it’s that people were looking for a panacea, and they weren’t panaceas.

Q: The project began in part to prevent sprawl. But sprawl already existed, and that made it hard to come up with a fix—trains, for instance, needed more population density to make sense. Does that mean sprawl is impossible to fix?

You can actually reverse it. It’s quite doable in Rockland County to build a rail line and to do high-density development around it and build little cities. The problem is people in Rockland County don’t want that. People for the most part want big parking lots around their stations. They don’t want their towns turning into little cities. These things are so complicated because there are so many interests at play. There are very strong differences between people In Rockland and Westchester, between people who commute to New York City and people who don’t. There’s the New York City perspective and the regional perspective. Trying to bring those interests together and find a consensus is impossible.

Q: It’s even more complicated than that. Yes, there was tension between interest groups. But even within some of the interested groups, there were differences in opinion and their take evolved over time. The environmental community seemed especially fractured.

Environmentalists in different places in different eras have had different perspectives. The HOV lane is a great example. Early on, environmentalists thought HOV was a great compromise between expanding highways and doing it in a way that was environmentally sensitive by getting people to car pool. Then a new group came in and said, ‘This is the worst thing ever.’ It’s not like anyone was wrong. For the most part, people were doing what they thought was best, oftentimes for their own interests but sometimes for what they perceived as a broader interest.

Q: So Andrew Cuomo comes to office in 2011, aims to finally get shovels in the ground, and succeeds—mainly by dropping any discussion of mass transit. Did the current governor work a miracle by finally bringing a complex project to fruition, or did his amputating the transit part make the project simple enough that it could be solved quickly?

The way I see it, the project started with planners asking, ‘How do we reduce congestion in a sustainable way?’ And the answer became Gov. Pataki’s vision of building a new train line along with a new bridge. (You couldn’t have a train line without a new bridge, the current bridge couldn’t accommodate it.) We’re nowhere close to that now. … There was an era when year after year, New York built more highways and they attracted cars so we built highways that attracted more cars so we built more highways. We kind of kind of got out of that. This is the first projects in a long time where we’re buiding something that’s bigger and wider. It’s just going to move the traffic somewhere else. There’s going to be a lot of pressure to widen the approach lanes in Rockland County. We could wind up with a wider Thruway because we have a wider Tappan Zee.

Q: What do you take as the larger lesson from the Tappan Zee saga? What does it say about the ability of government in the modern era to pull off complex projects?

Have you read that book, the Power Broker? In some ways I think this is the sequel to it. That book is about Robert Moses getting things done, year after year. In this book, year after year, we didn’tdo anything because we value things differently today. Cuomo did the kind of thing Robert Moses did, which was minimize public participation, minimize transparency and exclude a public transportation component. Robert Moses was able to get things done, Dewey was able to get things done and Gov. Cuomo is able to get things done. But you lose things that are very important, I think.

  • jhertzli

    “Sewed distrust”? Is that claim made out of whole cloth?

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  • Bobberooni

    In my experience, the attractiveness of a particular transit-oriented development depends in part on the cost of transit to that location. For that reason, Southern Westchester County is far preferable to Northern Westchester, for the same size apartment. I think we should continue to increase densities in the closer-in suburbs where it makes sense, rather than building little cities in Rockland County.