Governor Andrew Cuomo has referred to the state’s first major new bridge in more than four decades as a symbol of America’s ability to again take on big infrastructure projects. But the saga that led up to its construction serves as a symbol of how elected officials waste resources by abandoning viable options and avoiding politically controversial policies.
In 1950, engineers suggested sites for the original Tappan Zee Bridge in locations where the Hudson River is about a mile wide. Former New York Governor Thomas Dewey rejected those locations because they fell within the jurisdiction of a bi-state authority, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Dewey didn’t want toll revenues on the state’s new bridge to be shared with New Jersey, so he decided to build the bridge a few hundred feet north of that jurisdiction—in perhaps the worst location—where the river is more than three miles wide and the foundations of the bridge could not reach bedrock.
After the bridge was completed in 1955, it sparked a housing boom and encouraged corporations to move their headquarters from Manhattan to new suburban office parks. This led to a problem on the bridge that corporate officials thought they had left behind—recurring highway traffic congestion.
In 1980, New York began studying alternatives to address the problem. While effective and cost-efficient ways to deal with traffic congestion existed, politicians—and most of their constituents—didn’t find them very appealing. For example, charging high tolls during peak periods on the Tappan Zee would have reduced congestion, but New York’s governors discarded the idea. Likewise, Governor George E. Pataki canceled a project that would have built a highway lane dedicated to carpools and buses. In New York’s pricey suburbs, buses and carpools were considered déclassé, and the governor thought transportation officials would be able to come up with a better idea to battle congestion.
Since there were no magic bullets to solving New York’s traffic problems, planning went on year after year, decade after decade as the region’s powerful transportation agencies battled each other. The toll authority wanted to add more highway lanes to increase its revenues, the state’s transportation department proposed a high occupancy vehicle lane, and the state’s railroad officials, not surprisingly, wanted to build a new railroad line.
The state’s leaders preferred studying alternatives rather than making a decision that would alienate key constituencies. For example, many people supported building a new rail line even though it would have required an astronomical subsidy of $20,000 for each train commuter every year for the first 50 years. Three New York governors had little to gain from lowering false expectations; instead, they were trapped by them.