Breaking Ground: A Q&A with Dr. Philip Plotch

Breaking Ground: A Q&A with Dr. Philip Plotch

Breaking Ground: A Q&A with Dr. Philip Plotch
September 25, 2015

Constructing a new Tappan Zee Bridge is a project that has long flummoxed New York state politicians and planners. A toxic combination of bureaucracy, lack of political will and logistical challenges all contributed to the inertia that finally led Gov. Andrew Cuomo to take matters into his own hands.

In his new book, “Politics Across the Hudson,” Dr. Philip Plotch, the director of the public administration master’s program at St. Peter’s University, extensively details the project’s history and explains why it was punted by several administrations before Cuomo finally broke ground on the bridge in 2013.

Plotch spoke with City & State’s Nick Powell about his book, the politics behind the controversial project and whether the final product will solve the problems that it originally intended to.

The following is an edited transcript.


City & State: We have known for decades that the Tappan Zee Bridge needed to be reconstructed, and that congestion needed to be alleviated along the I-287 corridor. So how did we get to where we are now with the new bridge finally breaking ground? 

Philip Plotch: The impetus for replacing the bridge wasn’t because it was some rotting structure, it was that the Thruway Authority wanted something wider, they wanted to increase the capacity of the Thruway.

Customers also were not happy having a bridge that was subject to a lot of delays, because there are no shoulders on the bridge, it’s harder to remove broken down cars, and because it doesn’t have as much capacity as other parts of the Thruway. It wasn’t something that the other agencies wanted to do, like the New York state Department of Transportation didn’t want to replace the bridge, they’re actually trying to reduce the number of vehicles in the downstate area, not increase the number of vehicles in the downstate area, at the same time Metro-North Railroad wanted to build a new railroad across the Hudson Valley, to connect Orange County, to connect to Stewart Airport, to connect to the north-south line, to go into White Plains, and then to go all the way down into Grand Central Terminal, so there’s these three incredibly powerful agencies that each had their own agendas and they didn’t play so nicely.

C&S: Where in the decades of punting on constructing a new bridge did the public transportation component get lost?

PP: In some ways it was the bureaucracies that ran amok. The Metro-North Railroad pushed for a new rail line across the Hudson County, and they lowballed the cost estimates, and when they lowballed the cost estimates, Gov. [George] Pataki didn’t realize that was happening. He thought this was sort of a feasible idea to build a rail crossing. He got numbers that the whole project, replacing the bridge and replacing the rail line and building the stations was going to cost $4 billion. It turned out later that the number was over $20 billion. What happened was everyone got really excited, but we couldn’t afford it. It turned out it wasn’t a feasible alternative. That’s where the politicians started to punt on it. Gov. Pataki said, “Okay, we’re going to keep on studying this,” [Gov. Eliot] Spitzer kept on studying it, and [Gov. David] Paterson kept on studying it. It was easier to study and to keep on studying something that wasn’t feasible as opposed to telling the public that this was not a feasible alternative.

C&S: How much did the contrasting styles of governance from Pataki to Spitzer to Paterson to Cuomo contribute to the constant kicking of the can on rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge?

PP: Gov. Pataki was somebody who really believed in local community input, he was a former mayor of Peekskill, and he saw how sometimes the state came in and the engineers didn’t know exactly what was going on and the local officials kind of knew better, in some instances, than the state officials. For him, having the local input was really important. And he was a Westchester guy, and he actually used to represent both sides of the Tappan Zee Bridge during his short term as a state senator before he became governor, so he understood the complexity, he understood all of the political pitfalls, and he really wanted the local buy-in. So his style was very different than the political operative that Andrew Cuomo is. Spitzer’s brilliant and he understands all the different implications and all of the different issues. If he had time as governor, I think things might have panned out a little differently, but we’ll never know. And Gov. Paterson is not the kind of person who likes to say no to people, he likes to please people and doing what he called “The Big Plan” was something that was pleasing people, he didn’t have any interest in saying no. There was enough stuff going on with the budget that he was alienating and pissing off people, but with the Tappan Zee Bridge he didn’t have the desire to say no.

C&S: What was the overarching message that you wanted to drive home about this project and how these large-scale transportation projects are built in New York State?

PP: I was trying to explain the complexity of addressing a problem. It could have been any problem because I had access to information and access to people. You take a problem, and one person can easily figure out how to solve that problem. What the problem along this part of the New York state Thruway was highway congestion, and people wanted to solve the highway congestion problem, but you really couldn’t actually solve that problem. If you widen the highway, people are just going to move over to Orange and Rockland County, and you’d just get more congestion. You could raise the tolls high enough to reduce congestion, but politically that’s not really acceptable. The other thing is you could’ve built a new rail line, but that would not have attracted nearly enough people to actually have reduced congestion.

C&S: And does the new Tappan Zee Bridge adequately solve that problem?

PP: No. I think what we’ll have is a wider, more stable, more robust transportation along those three miles, but it won’t solve the congestion problem. No, it’s a problem I don’t think you can really solve to the begin with. What you can do is you can replace a bridge, and that was one of the genius things about Andrew Cuomo, he figured out we’re not going to resolve a problem that we can’t solve, we’re just gonna solve some other problem.

Nick Powell