ALBANY, New York — At $3.9 billion, the new Tappan Zee Bridge is one of the most expensive public works projects in U.S. history. Yet even a year into construction, New York hasn't detailed how it plans to pay for it and how much will be passed on to motorists in the form of tolls.
Anxiety over bridge financing deepened this past week when the Environmental Protection Agency balked at Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to use $511 million in federal clean water loans on the project.
And Cuomo himself later dismissed another creative financing suggestion: tapping some of the billions of dollars New York has collected in recent months in legal settlements over alleged wrongdoing by banks and insurance companies.
State officials won't provide their estimates for the toll — currently $5 — that will be needed to make payments on the bonds and loans that will finance construction, though figures of $9 and as high as $14 have been mentioned. Some motorists worry the toll could even approach $20, which would make it among the most expensive crossings in the nation.
"It's killing me already," said Gracia Rescigno, a Suffern resident who takes the Tappan Zee daily to her hospital clerk job in the Bronx. "Every time I hear about the toll I get agita. You hear $14, you hear $20. But I'm stuck. I can't afford it but I can't afford to move either."
Lawmakers, rating agencies and commuters have all expressed concerns about just how high the toll might be when the new span across the Hudson River 25 miles north of Manhattan is completed.
"We should not buy something if we don't know how we're going to pay for it," said Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, a Democrat whose district is on the east side of the bridge.
Since the Thruway Authority doesn't receive tax support, it will be up to drivers to foot the bill.
The new, double-span bridge linking Westchester and Rockland counties is taking shape alongside the existing, 60-year-old Tappan Zee, which was built to last 50 years and serve 100,000 vehicles a day but now carries 140,000 daily.
Motorists don't have to look far to find other big tolls.
The round-trip cash price at the George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and northern Manhattan runs $13, and the Verrazano-Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island is $15. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which stretches for 20 miles, runs up to $30 round trip each way in peak, warm-weather months.
Cuomo has sought ways to keep the project's cost down. The winning construction bid for the project came in more than $1 billion under earlier estimates, and Cuomo has worked to maximize the state's use of low-interest federal loans.
But uncertainty about the tolls prompted two major rating agencies to downgrade the Thruway Authority's bonds last year. Both Moody's and Standard & Poor's Ratings Service noted that the bonds will depend on toll increases. Moody's also questioned the Thruway Authority's ability to manage the construction of such a complex project.
Good-government groups have also objected to the state's reluctance to discuss the toll.
"Clearly there is a scramble to do anything but have an open discussion," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause-New York.
The Authority has pushed back against speculation that it plans to keep the toll low by raising tolls system-wide.
"The intent is to pay for the new bridge using any potential increases above current toll rates at the bridge — not system-wide Thruway toll revenues," said Thruway Authority Executive Director Thomas Madison.
Cuomo late this past week appeared to close the door on the idea to tap billion-dollar legal settlements negotiated with banks and insurance companies that helped the state post a $4.2 billion budget surplus.
Asked about it Friday, Cuomo said "there's been no discussion of that."
Still, it's an idea supported by lawmakers like Abinanti, AAA New York and Cuomo's Republican opponent this fall, Westchester County executive Rob Astorino, and one likely to please Barbara Pickert, an interior designer from Tarrytown who often uses the bridge.
"This bridge is vital, really," she said. "I don't think people would be thrown if it went to $7. But you go higher than that, make it too expensive, you might kill Rockland County, strangle the economy."
Associated Press writer Jim Fitzgerald contributed to this report from Tarrytown.