Environmentalists Outraged: NY Raids Clean Water Funds to Pay for Broke Bridge Project

With dubious credit and limited funding resources, Governor Andrew Cuomo is tapping money dedicated to safe water to pay for $4 billion bridge.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has raided the state’s clean water fund to help pay for a $3.9 Billion bridge project 19 miles north of New York City. More than $500 million was taken from New York’s water quality program meant to protect the environmental health of the Hudson River estuary. The Cuomo Administration says that the money is a loan between two quasi-state agencies and will be repaid.

The announcement came this week from the Cuomo Administration and the state's Environmental Facilities Corporation. The corporation's president, Matthew Driscoll, said that the state withdrew $511 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund and loaned it to New York’s Thruway Authority to help pay for work on the replacement for the Governor Malcolm G. Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge, better known as the just the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The 60-year old bridge is being replaced with a dual-span bridge for automobile and commercial traffic. There will also be a pedestrian/bicyclist component, but no dedicated public transportation other than Bus Rapid Transit. The new bridge will span more than three miles and is reportedly the largest infrastructure project in the U.S.

The Cuomo administration says that the loan, augmented by a $1.6 billion low-interest federal loan, will limit toll increases for cars and trucks when the the new bridge opens.

Like the old span, the new one will unite New York’s Westchester and Rockland counties. The current span opened in 1955 and is quickly deteriorating. The structure bears an average of 138,000 vehicles per day, substantially more traffic than its designed capacity. During its first decade, the bridge carried fewer than 40,000 vehicles per day.

Driscoll said that the loan from clean water funds will not leave the agency short of cash for water quality projects, like repairing sewage infrastructure and drinking water systems. However, it’s projected that the state’s aging water systems require upgrades totaling $60 billion or more.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not yet signed off on the plan. An EPA spokeswoman said the agency will take a close look at the state's proposal to use the clean water funds for projects related to the bridge replacement.

Critics point to reports showing that New York has nearly $30 billion each in wastewater and clean-water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years.They say they’re not happy with the Governor’s  plan,  claiming it leaves the state vulnerable to a host of water infrastructure problems. Peter Iwanowicz of Environmental Advocates of New York told the Albany Times-Union that diverting funds meant for protecting water resources is short sighted.

"Diverting funds meant for clean water to instead supporting the construction of a bridge establishes a deeply troubling precedent and raises many questions. There are already enormous unmet needs for sewage treatment cleanups in New York City that could go unfunded because of this significant shift in resources. The Legislature should conduct hearings."

Iwanowicz said it takes "a little bit of creative accounting" for the Environmental Facilities Corporation to provide funding for a project that will create the type of environmental damage that the corporation is supposed to protect against.

Brian Sampson, Executive Director of the activist Unshackle Upstate organization, says that the loan for the bridge is further proof that Governor Cuomo is still scrambling to find funding for this project. 

“Loans need to be repaid, which is just another indication that they didn’t have a good financing plan in place when they went forward with the bridge,” he said.

Green Party gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins, a long-time progressive opponent of Cuomo, said on his Facebook page, “Pete Seeger must have rolled over in his grave.”

The Times-Union says that the loan between the two state organizations was was arranged because the Environmental Facilities Corporation has a better credit rating than the New York State Thruway Authority. Both are independent public corporations that operate like state agencies, but are not technically government organizations. 

Last year, top bond rating agencies downgraded the Thruway Authority’s rating, citing worries that debt from the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement would overburden the Authority, especially if there are construction delays.

EFC funds are supposed to fund construction expenses to help the state comply with state, regional, and federal environmental standards.

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.

 

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