Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ambitious plan to replace the aging Tappan Zee Bridge has quietly hit financial uncertainties that could shift more of the $3.9-billion cost to motorists and taxpayers statewide, with the possibility of much higher tolls than the $14 originally predicted, according to documents and interviews.
That’s because the state stands to receive a federal loan for much less than Cuomo originally sought. He asked a year ago for a loan that would cover 49 percent of the project, but the federal government told the state this past week that the biggest loan it would get would be 33 percent.
At the same time, the state Thruway Authority’s credit outlook, which can affect borrowing costs, recently received a “negative,” in part because of its $3.7-billion debt and its refusal to reveal a plan for toll hikes.
All of that means the state will have to finance more of the project with traditional loans at higher rates than the low-interest money offered by the government. And other sources — such as bridge tolls, statewide Thruway tolls and state money — could be tapped to cover those higher borrowing costs.
“I suspect that most of the increase will be on the bridge itself, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a bit of an increase elsewhere to help pay for it,” said Peter Samuel of the national trade magazine Toll Roads News, which has followed the project closely. “It’s quite possible they will try to spread the pain about.”
What that means for the 170,000 motorists who cross the Hudson River interstate span north of New York City every day is unclear.
The toll for the current Tappan Zee is $5. And the Thruway Authority estimated last year — under the previous hopes for federal funding — that when the new bridge is completed in 2018, the toll could nearly triple to about $14, which Cuomo said was too high.
E. J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy said all taxpayers may be forced to help pay for the bridge replacement. He noted Cuomo set a precedent a year ago to avoid a politically unpopular 45-percent increase in commercial vehicle tolls by tapping the state’s general fund.
“He set a precedent and it’s a very bad one,” McMahon said. “The Thruway Authority is not healthy, and it doesn’t look good even without the Tappan Zee replace on their books… Where’s the financial plan?”