ALBANY—The state Public Authorities Control Board on Wednesday approved a controversial loan for the Tappan Zee replacement bridge, but not before the amount was cut in half without explanation and officials admitted for the first time there would be a toll hike to pay for the project.
The board voted to approve a $255 million loan from the state clean water fund to pay for parts of the $4 billion bridge project. State officials acted as if that was the plan all along, even though a printed copy of the meeting agenda included the original $511 million request that was to be voted on Wednesday. The Environmental Facilities Corporation, largely comprised of appointees by Governor Andrew Cuomo, approved the full loan last month.
Thruway Authority director Tom Madison admitted at the meeting that bridge tolls would likely rise next year to help pay for the replacement, but would not say by how much. The admission was the first acknowledgement by the Cuomo administration that systemwide toll hikes are coming, but after the election.
Cuomo is using money from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, money that is meant for sewer upgrades, but he managed to finagle it to build a bridge instead, one that he is touting as a major accomplishment of his administration.
But not everyone thinks Cuomo's doings are on the up and up:
Republican Senator John DeFrancisco of Syracuse, who threatened to vote against the loan weeks ago, said he was the one who cut the $511 million in half because not all of the funds would be spent appropriately.
“We got half of the loan off the table until we see what's being done with this part of the project to make sure it's spent appropriately,” DeFrancisco said.
DeFrancisco said $100 million was for engineering and other items that were “difficult to pin down.” He said he was concerned the Cuomo administration had “fudged” some of the intended uses of the loan because they had nothing to do with environmental projects.
“What this is all about is the Thruway Authority and, indirectly, the governor doesn't want to be able to say what the actual increase in the bridge toll is going to be, that's what it amounts to,” DeFrancisco said. “The plan is obvious, borrow money and then pay for it out of tolls.”
This is similar to the game Cuomo played with toll increases on the NY/NJ bridges and tunnels, as well as the PATH fare - though that time he had help from his pal, New Jersey Criminal-In-Chief Chris Christie.
It's called "Head Fake The Toll Hikes":
On Aug. 5, 2011, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey issued a jaw-dropping proposal to immediately raise bridge and tunnel tolls by $4 for E-ZPass subscribers and $7 for cash customers, followed by another increase in 2014. The proposed hikes amounted to a 75 percent increase for E-ZPass users and 112.5 percent for those paying cash.
The authority also proposed PATH fares go up $1, from $1.75 to $2.75.
The reaction was swift and angry, with commuters and lawmakers blasting the increases.
Gov. Chris Christie, who said he had no advance knowledge of the proposal, was among them.
“You’re kidding, right?” Christie told reporters three days after the announcement, describing what he said when briefed on the proposal.
But within two weeks, after a blizzard of 36 press releases by the Port Authority on behalf of toll hike supporters and after public hearings packed with union laborers backing the plan, Christie and his New York counterpart, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, consented to a more modest increase. Even then, the governors conditioned their approval on a top-to-bottom financial review of the agency.
The thing is, a former Port Authority official told The Star-Ledger, “It was all bullshit.”
From the start, the fix was in, said that former official and five others who occupied key Port Authority posts when the toll hike was rolled out and eventually approved.
The whole process, the authority officials said, was orchestrated from the outset to make the governors look good even as they reached deeper, through the long arm of the authority, into the public’s pockets.
The former Port Authority officials (five who are no longer with the agency and one who is still there) outlined the strategy and execution of the plan in separate interviews with The Star-Ledger. Each asked that their names not be used because they feared repercussions from speaking out even after they had left the agency.
The first proposal disclosed to the public, the former officials explained, was deliberately inflated. Also planned was Christie and Cuomo’s shocked — shocked! — reaction and an unusual one-day series of eight public hearings. Those hearings were all held during the morning or evening rush hours to discourage attendance by irate commuters, but were stacked with union members who backed the hike because of the construction jobs it would fund.
All this, the sources said, was designed to set up the governors’ ostensibly reluctant approval of a more modest hike, accompanied by their stern admonitions that this was it and that the agency had better get its financial house in order once and for all.
But it was all Hollywood on the Hudson, the six sources said, scripted all the way through.
“They knew what the toll increase would be,” said one former official. “They set the governors up to look like heroes. It was all a farce.”
BTW, the PA officials Cuomo and Christie played "Headfake The Toll Hikes" with were some of the same officials involved in Christie's Bridgegate - Bill Baroni and David Samson.
So if you're looking for a connection between Cuomo and Bridgegate, there is one - he got help in his PA toll hike game from the same guys who worked the GWB bridge closure.
In any case, the game Cuomo is playing with the toll hikes around the state as a consequence of the TZB work is the same game he and Christie played with the Port Authority toll hikes and PATH fare increase.
And, to quote the former PA official when talking about the Port Authority toll hikes that were engineered in such a way as to make the governors look like heroes by lowering the increases from what was originally released, "It's all bullshit."
Cuomo needs to be called on this BEFORE the election - how much are the tolls going up on the bridges, tunnels and roads as a result of the TZB work?
Why is there no plan available for the TZB to be viewed by the public?
Why hasn't Cuomo owned up that there would have to be toll hikes?
Cuomo needs to be held accountable here.