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Group urges no vote on Cuomo proposal

Photo by Karen DeWitt

Environmentalists are urging a key review board to vote no on a request from the Cuomo Administration to help rebuild the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Governor Cuomo’s administration wants to use money from a revolving loan fund, designed to help local governments keep their sewer and water treatment systems up to date and their drinking water clean, to instead help pay for the massive Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project.

The deal to use the money for the bridge that spans the Hudson River between Rockland and Westchester Counties needs the approval of a state board controlled jointly by Governor Cuomo and the legislature.

Peter Iwanowicz, with Environmental Advocates, along with several other environmental groups, says the use of the clean water money to build a bridge is inappropriate and urges the board to vote no at its next meeting, when the bridge loan will be considered .

“We want them to reject what the Cuomo Administration would like to do in terms of raiding these clean water funds for the use of a bridge,” Iwanowicz said.  

The groups  estimate only $3.5 million of the $511 million loan requested would actually go to preserving clean water, and they say some of that money would be used to offset damage to water purity caused by building the bridge in the first place.  

“This doesn’t pass the laugh test,” said Laura Haight, with the New York Public Interest Research Group. She called it a “money grab”.

They say local governments in New York badly need the money to keep their drinking water clean, including Long Island water treatment plants damaged after Hurricane Sandy.

Newspaper editorials from around the state agree with the environmental groups that using the clean water funds to help build the bridge is a bad idea, using terms like “pilfering” , calling it a betrayal of  Governor Cuomo’s pledge to conduct a transparent process to build the new bridge.

The environmental groups complain that little has been revealed about the overall financing plan for the bridge.

They say they asked for information, including the state Thruway Authority’s application form for the loan, but have received nothing.  Iwanowicz, with Environmental Advocates, says the request for money came after a deadline set by Cuomo’s environmental agency had passed and was instead announced in an obscure state publication just a little over a month before the scheduled meeting of the state oversight board.

“The secrecy has gone on long enough,” Iwanowicz said.  “Governor Cuomo should immediately tell the public how he plans to pay for this bridge.”

The three member board, known as the Public Authorities Control Board, includes a representative from the Cuomo Administration, and the majority parties in each house of the legislature.   The representative for the Senate Republicans, Senator John DeFrancisco, has expressed doubts about using the loan and has said he wants to see the details of the financing plan before he votes.  He would not rule out a no vote.

The federal government oversees the clean water revolving loan, and the Environmental Protection Agency has also raised questions about the appropriateness of the deal.

Meanwhile, the Republican candidate for governor, Rob Astorino, who is also the Westchester County executive, says the state should use part of a recently announced multi-billion dollar settlement with a French bank to help pay for the bridge, and other infrastructure needs.  Iwanowicz, with Environmental Advocates, says it’s worth a look.

“If it ameliorates a raid on clean water funds,” said Iwanowicz. “That’s a great discussion to have.”

In the past, Cuomo Administration officials have accused opponents of the bridge’s financing efforts of wanting higher tolls.

The topic of tolls for the new bridge has been a sensitive one ever since a top aide to Cuomo said nearly two years that the tolls could be $14 to cross the new bridge once it’s finished.  (The current cost is less than $5.) After that, in August of 2012,  the governor said that figure was too high, and that he would appoint a tolls and financing task force for the new bridge, but he has not yet formed the panel.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.