Breaking Ground: A Q&A with Philip Plotch

Breaking Ground: A Q&A with Philip Plotch

Breaking Ground: A Q&A with Philip Plotch
August 7, 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 bridge is part of the New York state Thruway, which was sort of America’s first super highway. Gov. [Thomas] Dewey advocated it, he wanted to build a highway connection that would connect pretty much all of the cities in New York state from Buffalo down to New York City. It needed to cross the Hudson River, and the engineers wanted to cross the Hudson River at a spot where the river is relatively narrow and where the foundations of the bridge can go into solid rock. The problem was, it fell within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s jurisdiction if you wanted to get close to New York City. So what they did is they built the bridge just north of the line, within a few feet of the Port Authority line, so close to the line that the bridge actually has to curve a little to avoid going over the Port Authority’s line. So New York could keep the toll revenue, and it could actually help subsidize the rest of the Thruway.

The trouble was, just north of the line, the river’s a little more than three miles wide compared to the location of the George Washington Bridge where it’s just about a mile wide, and north of that was the Bear Mountain Bridge, where the river’s less than half a mile wide. So you’re talking about a three mile-wide bridge, and the other two bridges go into solid rock, but the Tappan Zee Bridge actually rests on clay and sand and gravel. So when you build a bridge that way, you have to minimize the weight, otherwise it would collapse, so they had to reduce the amount of steel, and the way they reduced the amount of steel made it deteriorate faster than any other bridge would in the New York area.

Now, it could have stayed up if they had maintained it better, once the Thruway Authority found out that they would get a chance to replace the bridge, they didn’t take care of it as well, so it deteriorated faster, so in a way it became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Once the Thruway Authority realized they were gonna replace the bridge, after a while they had to replace the bridge because of deterioration.

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. You don’t make enemies by just studying something, but you do by telling people, “Oh, we can’t afford the rail line.”

When you announce something that’s really big and grand, people think you’re visionary and that’s good, and when you start scaling it back, you get a lot of flak for it, which is what happened when Gov. Cuomo scaled back the rail piece. What was feasible was a Bus Rapid Transit component, and justifiably Gov. Cuomo got a lot of flak for that.

C&S: What happened to the BRT component on the new bridge?

PP: Gov. Cuomo, when he came in, he wasn’t trying to reduce congestion in the Hudson Valley, which had been the goal since 1980. By the time we get to him, there were 30 years of planning on how to reduce congestion, all these different ideas that came up. Gov. Cuomo wanted to get something done, he’s not the kind of person who wants endless studies, he didn’t need a consensus from everyone in the Hudson Valley like the three previous governors did. He wanted to get something done and show progress in his first term of office. His schtick is, “I get stuff done.” He balanced the budget, he gets gay marriage, he gets all these things done that people have been talking about for years. So what he did is he said, “Okay, let’s see what we need to do to get this done as soon as possible.” So speed became paramount. The most important thing wasn’t being environmentally sensitive, the most important thing wasn’t community consensus, the most important thing wasn’t minimizing impacts to the neighbors. The number one objective was getting something done as fast as possible. So he chalked out the BRT because that was going to slow down the planning process.

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: How much of the delay in rebuilding the bridge had to do with the lack of cooperation between New York and New Jersey, which predates Gov. Christie and Gov. Cuomo?

PP: The two states have been competing for a long time, they compete on sports teams, they compete on who’s gonna get Goldman Sachs and who’s gonna get J.P. Morgan, they compete on all sorts of things. But sometimes they actually get together. They created the Port Authority 100 years ago to deal with issues around the port, and they created E-Z Pass. So sometimes they do actually cooperate when they see an interest in working together. Unfortunately, they did not when it came to crossing the Hudson in the last couple of decades. New Jersey pushed really hard to get the ARC tunnel, New York didn’t see it as a priority, New York instead was pushing for a rail line across the Tappan Zee Bridge. It would carry about one-tenth as many people as a new tunnel would into Penn Station. So New York was pushing for something that didn’t really make a lot of sense and if they worked together with New Jersey, we would have construction well under way on a new tunnel, instead they saw it as competition, they didn’t work together, and now we ended up with neither a new rail line on the Tappan Zee Bridge, nor a new rail tunnel into New York.

C&S: With the public transportation component scuttled despite public demand, do you think that the public had enough input in the final proposal for the Tappan Zee Bridge?

PP: Public participation refers to people actually participating in the decision-making process, people understanding the different choices that are out there, and having some input into that process. That’s what public participation and public involvement are. That went on, there were hundreds and hundreds of meetings that the state Department of Transportation and the Thruway and the MTA set up. They had over 400 public meetings, they set up working groups, and they set up committees and subcommittees, they had advisory committees, they had public workshops, that was all part of this public involvement process. Gov. Cuomo wasn’t interested in that. He instead had much more of a PR process to get this decision done. It was more of, “We’re gonna get out there and sell what we have and we’re gonna get the people to buy into this decision.”

There was some backlash, when he got a lot of hits for taking away transit and for making that decision behind closed doors. When he did, he had this sort of full-court PR press to go out to Rockland county, to go out to Westchester county to meet with the community to make sure that once the decision was made it would be done in a way that was sensitive to the community. And he did a great job, including having his No. 2 guy Larry Schwartz and meet with community members and actually tell these people to go door to door to make sure that your needs are being met. It was very different than public involvement, First it was public relations and then there was real sensitivity, kind of around the edges, that this project is gonna be done in a way that is sensitive to the community.

C&S: Did you calculate how much taxpayer money was spent in the decades planning the Tappan Zee Bridge reconstruction?

PP: It was over $100 million. If they spent $100 million and didn’t’ do anything, you’d say, “What a waste.” But they spent $100 million and ended up with a $4 billion project, which doesn’t sound as bad, I think. Some of the work they did, did get used. So it’s kind of hard to say how much is wasted. It’s not like they threw it all away, they definitely went down the wrong path at times.

The governor hasn’t released any elements of the financial plan. Somebody in the governor’s office once told me, “We don’t release information about the finances if we want to get it built.” Which means, “We’re not gonna tell you how much we’re gonna raise taxes or how much we’re gonna raise tolls, otherwise we won’t get to build it.”

C&S: I’m curious what you think of the parallel between Robert Moses and Gov. Cuomo in how the latter went about getting the bridge built. Moses was famous for manipulating the various levers of government to get transportation projects built, sometimes with a clear lack of regard for regulations and bureaucracy. Do you see a similar tack to what Cuomo did to break ground on the bridge.

PP: Cuomo is not getting around any regulations, he’s not breaking the law, he’s not doing anything terribly devious. He is taking advantage of every single opportunity he can get. So one of the things he was able to get White House support to streamline the regulatory process, which was huge. He was able to get the state Legislature to change the law so that one firm can both design and build the bridge, and that saved a lot of time. So he understands how to use the different levers of power to get everything done, but he’s not doing anything illegally.

There are definitely some similarities, there is the idea of minimizing transparency, there’s the idea of minimizing public involvement, and there’s the idea of transit is not important, and all three are Robert Moses and Andrew Cuomo. There are some people who think this is great this is how you get stuff done, and there are some people who are troubled by this.

C&S: Are there safeguards in place to ensure that the project comes in on budget and on time?

PP: There’s a Danish researcher who studied this over many years and finds that invariably in any country, in any decade, real costs are higher than estimated costs. One in ten come in under budget, and one in ten comes in on time, and one in ten provides the benefits that you were promised. So overall, one in 1000 meets all the promises that were given to the public.

There are safeguards in place. One of the things they did with this project, is that one contractor that’s responsible and they have guaranteed that it’s going to cost $3.9 billion. There are certainly ways around it, there are certainly things that are going to come up, so we don’t really know for sure, but the state seems to have done a pretty thorough job so far managing this project. Time will tell what’s really going to happen.  

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.

So you had the public, and the elected officials, and the transportation planners, and the engineers, and all sorts of people trying to figure out how to solve the congestion problem, but they couldn’t solve it. And what I wanted to show is what happens in this situation.

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