The Tappan Zee Replacement’s Outrageous Cost

The Tappan Zee Bridge is about to fall down. As a result, the replacement and widening project is in spare-no-expense mode. Ordinarily, widening a bridge from seven lanes to ten would be judged in terms of costs and benefits, after which the costs would be ignored as they always are for US road projects. But now everyone thinks New York needs this project, to the point that even transit and livable streets advocates are more worried about commuter rail tracks on the new bridge than about the costs of the entire project.

Cap’n Transit cribbed study numbers before they disappeared from the official website. The budget of the project, without the transit component, was about $7 billion, and is now up to $8.3 billion; this includes highway widenings at both ends. The transit component people are fretting about is another $1 billion for BRT and $6.7 billion for commuter rail.

To put things in perspective, consider the Øresund Bridge-Tunnel complex. Whereas the Tappan Zee is 5 kilometers of bridge, Øresund consists of 8 kilometers of bridge, an artificial island with 4 additional kilometers of road, and 4 kilometers of tunnel. The cost, including landworks on both sides, was a little more than €3 billion in 2000, which works out to $5.5 billion in 2010. The bridge-tunnel is narrower than the Tappan Zee replacement – four lanes of traffic plus two tracks of rail – but it’s also three times as long, and more complex because of the tunnel.

More importantly, if the Tappan Zee really needs that capacity, and width is such a constraint, they should build rail first, BRT second, and car lanes last. Roads will never beat mass transit on capacity per unit width of right-of-way. With all traffic from Rockland to Westchester County funneled through one chokepoint, and some centralization of employment (in Manhattan, White Plains, and Tarrytown), rail could work if it were given the chance. So the only environment in which a bridge with so many traffic lanes is justified is one in which the cost of ten lanes is not much more than the cost of four.

To be completely fair to irate Rockland County residents, more people use the Tappan Zee than Øresund, since the tolls are lower and it’s a commuter route. But not enough. The bridge is crossed by 138,000 vehicles per day. This means the replacement and widening project, excluding all transit improvements, is $60,000 per car. With normal commuter seat occupancy, it’s perhaps $50,000 per person. Transit projects in the US routinely go over this, but those are for the most part very low-ridership commuter rail projects. Second Avenue Subway, the most expensive urban subway in the world per kilometer, is about $25,000 per expected weekday rider.

Given the high cost, the only correct response is a true no-build: dismantle the bridge, and tell people to ride ferries or live on the same side of the Hudson as their workplace. Given expected ridership and Øresund costs, I believe the Tappan Zee replacement would make sense at $3 billion, with the transit components; without, make it a flat $2 billion. Go much above it and it’s just too cost-ineffective. Not all travel justifies a fixed link at any cost.


  1. Douglas Willinger

    “Given the high cost, the only correct response is a true no-build: dismantle the bridge, and tell people to ride ferries or live on the same side of the Hudson as their workplace. Given expected ridership and Øresund costs, I believe the Tappan Zee replacement would make sense at $3 billion, with the transit components; without, make it a flat $2 billion. Go much above it and it’s just too cost-ineffective.”

    This is a classic example of damn the public- just get them distracted from the insane spending upon the Pentagon and the cigarette-alcohol-pharma mercantilsim drug war. There’s no good reason why we can not afford wider highways AND more transit, with rail eventually along the entire Westchester I-287 corridor, plus at least anoter all new cross Hudson link from a reconstructed CCP to New Jersey.

    • Alon Levy

      Sure, this is affordable. The US is a big country and can afford to waste a few billion dollars on a bridge. But you shouldn’t think of it as a fixed amount of money going to either the military or transportation (besides which, there’s also health, social security, education, or just reducing taxes). Think of it as a cost-benefit calculation. Of course it’s much more favorable than the Pentagon; but less wasteful than the Pentagon is like less evil than Hitler. And it’s not as if building more bridges is going to stop military waste.

        • Nathanael

          It’s an *awful* location for a bridge.

          If you’ve looked at a map, you’ll realize that it could be done much more cheaply if it were relocated to the north or south end of the Tappan Zee.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Look at the map in with the terrain visible.
            Moving it to Dobbs Ferry-Sneden’s Landing isn’t an option today. Even if the NIMBYs were to evaporate, building the approaches and putting a jog in the Thruway wouldn’t be cheap.

          • Nathanael

            The NIMBYs are a valid point. But building. the approaches would still be cheaper than building the bridge actually across the Tappan Zee.

      • Douglas Willinger

        And if one is sincere about government waste and health, one must oppose the criminal mercantilism for cigarettes and alcohol that wastes huge sums of money while immorally depriving humans of their liberty, rather than be an enabler of subverting transportation.

        • Alon Levy

          I’m well-aware that transportation is both a small portion of government spending and waste and a secondary issue in the general scheme of things; I’m not going to support a politician who says the right things on transportation but then supports genocide abroad, for instance (or who hates immigrants, or supports creationism, on some lesser notes). It’s just the issue I’m familiar with. That there are bigger wastes and bigger problems does not mean spending $8 billion on a bridge is justified.

          To put things in perspective, say the costs were normal, so that the replacement would cost $3 billion inclusive of the rail component (and this includes connecting lines at both ends, from Suffern to Port Chester). On the same budget, New York could build much more: for example, a road-rail bridge between Port Washington and City Island or New Rochelle, allowing people from Long Island to get to Stamford without passing through the city.

  2. jim

    The Tappan Zee bridge is not about to fall down. If it were, they would have already restricted truck traffic on it. Its maintenance cost has risen significantly, though, to something in the low tens of millions of dollars a year. It doesn’t need to be replaced. It can carry on as it is for a long time to come, as long as NYSDOT spends the money to keep maintaining it. Instead, NYSDOT is planning to spend $8B to save, say, $40M a year: a return on investment of 0.5%, which is low even by the standards of three month t-bills.

    It doesn’t need to be widened, either, but that’s a separate discussion.

    • EngineerScotty

      But even more expensive. 🙂

      The CRC itself (the main span across the Columbia’s main channel) is only about a kilometer in length; but the project includes lots of Other Stuff–primarily several redesigned interchanges on I-5 on both sides of the river. The transit components (a northward extension of the MAX Yellow Line into Vancouver WA) have become a bit of a political football, with the politically liberal Portland city government insisting on it as a condition of bridge construction, and the politically-conservative Vancouver area demanding its removal as a cost-cutting measure.

      Fun times.

      • Nathanael

        I’m glad Portland City is fighting to require something useful as a condition of building that boondoggle. If the MAX extension gets removed, the thing is beyond useless and hopefully Portland will be able to kill it dead.

        It’s a *terrible* design anyway. I’ve seen at least *three* alternative community designs for crossing the Columbia more cheaply and more effectively, most of which involved multiple smaller bridges to take local traffic off the expressway. Apparently those were rejected out of hand by the state DOTs because (horrors) they didn’t add general-purpose freeway lanes. (Which are, incidentally, totally useless because the expressway promptly narrows south of the bridge.)

  3. Steve

    Tappan Zee is Functionally Obsolete, not Structurally Deficient. IMO no-build is the only really ideal scenario whenever Roadway X is rated “Functionally Obsolete” (between the lines: means traffic engineers can’t believe the amount of traffic the thing handles), since replacement will always displace congestion further and further outward rather than truly eliminating it, as I mentioned in the comments a couple of posts ago.

    Unfortunately–as Cap’n Transit also touched on–Tappan Zee is essentially the New York State Thruway’s main gravy train, financing maintenance not just of itself but also the rest of the network. This has allowed New York to keep tolls artificially low, and even provide such inanities as the elimination of tolls from a large part of the Thruway. The replacement project is really essentially a Federal handout allowing New York to maintain its unsustainable roadway financing mechanism for another infrastructural generation.

    Policy directive: Do not waste money replacing Functionally Obsolete spans. Replace only Structurally Deficient ones (those in danger of falling down). Corollary: Fact-check everything American traffic engineers say. Always ask for European (and Japanese) traffic engineers’ expert opinions. They are more competent; very often, they may actually save you money.

  4. Andre Lot

    The cost of the replacement bridge is soaring because, once one gets some special deference, like much more expensive regulations regarding the movement of trucks coming from the worksite to avoid irritating those living in the embankments, all sorts of add-on become acceptable.

    But the bridge truly needs replacement, not dismantling. For sake, there is no other fixed link on that area. Maybe not a 10-lane freeway, maybe only a 6-lane freeway. Even charge appropriate tolls if necessary. To argue that bridges should be dismantled if they are old and congested is just anti-car bigotry.

    The Øresund bridge carries fewer traffic because it serves a different purpose (as do the other 2 major Denmark bridges).

    What is truly needed is a national directive putting and end to special adjustments on infrastructure projects in general. Or at least, national uniform standards known ex-ante, so that a concentrated discussion on costs of special regulations can be made beforehand, getting rid of the “adjusting while designing” practice that adds years (sometimes a decade) to any project (road, rail etc.) and creates the impression any tweaking is warranted to leave everybody happy.

    Arguing about the usefulness of a bridge in the Alleutian Islands? That might be warranted. Arguing bout the usefulness of a bridge that is the only link among two important areas in the biggest US metropolis? It’s a no-brainer.

    Now, if only costs were bring back down with reasonable practices… But to suggest people should move “to the side of the river they work” is, just for a starter, to suggest, God forbid, one should never consider forming a family in which each adult works at each site of the river.

  5. Nathanael

    The middle of the Tappan Zee is a horrendously bad location for a bridge.

    It would make more sense to relocate the Thruway to a bridge further north, and establish bridges across the narrow points north and south of the Tappan Zee for local traffic. If people really want additional service across the middle, build a ferry.

  6. jim

    To a great extent the money for this is not that fungible. If NYSDOT doesn’t spend on this, it’ll build the rooftop highway instead. If it spends on this it probably won’t have money for the rooftop. There is a very long list of unnecessary roadbuilding activities that NYSDOT could engage in. They’ll spend the money they have for it somehow. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, State DOTs gotta build roads.

  7. David Beale (@MrMoochy)

    Excellent article. I agree that the existing Tappan Zee bridge is viable for decades to come, but it is going to need an overhaul which will cost something like $ 50 – 75 million. But that is a long way from $5 billion, which is what the proposed white elephant replacement bridge will cost. And if a new billion-dollar bridge needs to be built in that area, then it needs to be a rail bridge – there is no rail connection across the Hudson north of Amtrak Hudson River tunnels until nearly the Albany metro area. That is simply unacceptable.

  8. Pingback: Trust (Hoisted from Comments) | Pedestrian Observations

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