Will dispute over Cuomo Bridge construction up the cost of the bridge?

Questions remain if the litigation costs and the bill TZC says it is owed will ultimately help drive up the tolls over the Gov. Mario Cuomo Bridge.

Thomas C. Zambito
Rockland/Westchester Journal News
  • A White Plains limousine driver, whose car was nearly struck by a falling crane in 2016, settled his lawsuit with Tappan Zee Constructors for $1.2 million.
  • Tappan Zee Constructuing is suing an engineering firm for a mishap that marred a celebration of the opening of the eastbound span of the bridge.
  • Tappan Zee Constructors says the state Thruway Authority owes it $960 million.

Glass-walled overlooks jut out over the Hudson River from more than 100 feet in the air, offering up sweeping views and a pit stop for those who venture onto the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge’s 3.6-mile walking and biking path.

Also called belvederes, there are six in all, each with seating and WiFi, with names evoking the history and culture of the Lower Hudson Valley – Fish & Ships, Painters Point and Tides of Tarrytown. Early plans featured a modest structure of stainless steel with mesh safety netting.

But over time, they were upgraded to include plate glass three inches thick and nearly nine feet tall, sturdy enough to withstand a ballistic missile attack and high enough to discourage people from jumping over the side.

They came with the same views. Only the price tag changed.

The upgrades to the belvederes and other improvements to the shared-use path ballooned the cost from $2.45 million to $64 million, documents obtained by The Journal News/lohud.com show.

Cyclists and pedestrians stop at one of the belvederes along the Pedestrian-Bike Path on the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge on Monday, June 15, 2020.

CLAIMS: Cuomo Bridge builders sue NY Thruway Authority for more than $900 million in disputed claims

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The massive price bump has become one of the more contentious issues in a bitter dispute between the New York State Thruway Authority and Tappan Zee Constructors (TZC), the consortium that built the $3.9 billion twin, cable-stayed span.

Last month, TZC sued the Thruway Authority for the $960 million it says it’s owed.

TZC says it should be paid for the added time and cost caused by hundreds of changes to the shared use path as well as the authority’s repeated meddling in its design plans throughout the five-year project. TZC says the Thruway Authority refused its requests to extend the project schedule, even through the icy winters of 2014 and 2015 that made it difficult to work on the river.

The dispute has gotten so contentious that members of the TZC consortium – Fluor Enterprises, Inc., American Bridge Company, Granite Construction Northeast, Inc., and Traylor Bros., Inc. -  say they may never do business in New York again.

 “The unresolved claims and lack of a meaningful dispute resolution process on the Tappan Zee Hudson River Crossing Project significantly reduces the likelihood of us working in New York in the future and multiple companies within our membership explicitly have no current plans to do so,” TZC said in a statement.

The dispute is one of nearly a dozen pending lawsuits over the Cuomo Bridge project reviewed by The Journal News/lohud.com.

Together, they offer a rare peek behind the scenes of a project whose details were closely guarded by state and Thruway Authority officials almost from the moment it was first discussed nearly a decade ago. TZC claims it was prevented from speaking about the project by the Thruway Authority.

They reveal just how close a driver came to being killed when a crane collapsed on the bridge in 2016. And they offer new insight into a miscue that had Gov. Andrew Cuomo's political opponents claiming he rushed the opening of the eastbound span in 2018 to aid his run for a third term. 

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Several subcontractors have sued, claiming they haven’t received what they were promised. Among them is a Cortlandt Manor company called Got-to-Go, which provided the portable toilets used by workers. The company says TZC owes it $170,000.

The years to come will tell whether TZC's threat of never working with the state again holds true or is the residue of a partnership gone sour.

What is clear is the dispute threatens to increase the cost of the new bridge, which came in well under the $5 billion price tag floated at the time bids were being solicited in 2012.

TZC’s bid came in a $3.14 billion, some $750 million less than the next closest bidder. The extra $800 million represented financial, management and environmental mitigation costs. It would be the first in New York to use a design-build model, which was supposed to fix the cost and leave the contractor responsible for overruns.

But will the litigation increase the cost of the project when the final receipts are in, eventually sticking drivers with the cost in higher tolls?

And will the project truly come in under budget, a claim often repeated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as he touted his success at building a bridge others only talked about ?

Thruway officials cast the dispute with TZC as the inevitable byproduct of a major building project. And they say the bridge came in within its budget and that all valid invoices have been paid.

“I am holding this contractor to the quality that we paid for because it’s important,” Jamey Barbas, the bridge’s project director, said. “This bridge is supposed to last 100 years. There are certain things that are mandatory, and he knew that when he signed up for it and we paid him billions of dollars for it. He said he was going to do these things and I’m making sure that he does. Does he like that? Probably not.”

As for the changes to the belvederes, she said: “I really felt strongly about anti-deterrent climbing on the glass and to have those glass plates in the belvederes designed so that kids or anybody else who may want to harm themselves won’t try to climb it.”

Cyclists and pedestrians stop at one of the belvederes along the Pedestrian-Bike Path on the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge on Monday, June 15, 2020.

The enhancements to the shared-used path were made after the Thruway Authority received community input on its plans.

“With user safety in mind and to maximize the value of this public investment, we decided to add tall glass at each of the six overlooks to offer unobstructed views of the majestic Hudson Valley, while also providing protection against weather elements and serving as a climb deterrent,” Thruway spokeswoman Jennifer Givner said.

And the extra costs were not only for the belvederes but included the construction of facilities at the path’s Westchester Landing as well as “wayfinding signage.”

Some 250,000 people have used the path since it opened in June.

Lawsuits pile up 

The high-stakes battle with TZC comes as the Thruway Authority fends off claims that bolts used to secure girders on the new bridge were defective and were a threat to driver safety  – a claim Barbas rejected this week.

“The bridge has been and continues to be safe for the traveling public,” Barbas said.

That hasn’t stopped lawmakers from citing the bolt issue in their recent calls for Cuomo’s resignation amid a sexual harassment investigation led by the state Attorney General’s office.

Workers pour concrete into a pile cap near the Rockland shore during construction for the new Tappan Zee Bridge Jan. 20, 2015.

Driver cheats death on the bridge

“Look!,” Ronald Cadny’s cousin shouted.

It was around noon on July 16, 2016.

Cadny was on vacation from his job as a limousine driver, taking his cousin from his home in White Plains for her doctor’s appointment in New Jersey.

His cousin saw the crane’s wires swinging wildly.

Cadny, 62, immediately threw the Honda Civic into park and hit the brakes, stopping just a few feet in front of the 250-foot boom that landed on the deck of the old bridge, shaking the 61-year-old structure.

The scene of a crane collapse that had blocked all travel lanes on the Tappan Zee Bridge during construction of the new Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge.

“So if I didn’t do it I was going to be – you know, become like a piece of meat with my cousin,” Cadny said in a 2019 deposition.

Cadny’s car fishtailed and was struck by a Subaru Impreza whose driver was forced to hit the brakes when Cadny came to a sudden stop.

Cadney was taken off the bridge in an ambulance with injuries to his leg, neck and back, according to his White Plains attorney, Matthew Tomkiel.

Since then, Cadny has found it hard to hoist his passenger’s suitcases into the car.

“I used to work a lot of hours,” Cadny said in the deposition. “I can’t do it anymore.”

His sleep is haunted by images of the crane coming down on the bridge.

“When I’m sleeping sometimes I dream about what happened to me,” he said. “It can’t. It can’t go away. This is a big problem.”

Cadny sued Tappan Zee Constructors for negligence.

His claim cited the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 2017 findings into the causes of the crane collapse.

OSHA concluded a plate on the clamping cylinder for the vibratory hammer used to drive piles into the Hudson River was corroded and damaged. The collapse occurred while its operator was raising the boom.

“The boom-up suddenly released the vibratory hammer and resulted in a chain reaction failure of the crane mast followed by the breakup of the crane boom when it struck the standing piles on the way down,” the report said.

It added: “This incident had the potential of catastrophic consequences.”

Cuomo called it a “nothing short of a miracle” that no one was killed.

In December, TZC agreed to settle Cadny’s claims for $1.2 million, Tomkiel said.

“When contractors are pressured to rush their work, they often compromise safety,” Tomkiel said. “Sadly, Mr. Cadny paid for their negligence when the crane came crashing down.”

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo at the Tarrytown waterfront, delivers remarks about the crane collapse onto the Tappan Zee Bridge July 19, 2016.

'Pop' mars Cuomo celebration

On the day it was to open to traffic, Cuomo drove a 1932 Packard owned by Franklin D. Roosevelt over the eastbound span of the new bridge with his mother Matilda in the passenger seat.

It was Sept. 7, 2018, a little more than a year after the westbound span opened to traffic. Months later Cuomo would be elected to a third term after a challenge from “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon in the Democratic primary and Republican Marc Molinaro in the general election.

While the celebration ensued, workers heard a pin joint pop on the east anchor span of the old bridge, which was slated for dismantling.

Demolition stopped. And the opening would be delayed four days.

In the interim, Cuomo’s challengers accused him of jeopardizing public safety by accelerating the bridge’s opening to fit his political aims.

“There are real, reasonable questions about whether this bridge span opening was accelerated to aid the Governor's campaign,” Nixon said.

Cuomo dismissed the allegation.

But in a lawsuit, TZC blames the mishap on Foothills Bridge, the engineering firm hired in 2014 to demolish the section of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

It notes that while removing a portion of the east anchor span “there were unexpected popping sounds and bridge movement.”

The lawsuit accuses Foothills of, among other things, failing to perform the work under applicable industry standards.

Instead of dismantling the bridge piece by piece as planned, the east anchor span was blasted with explosives in January 2019, while hundreds watched from the shoreline in Westchester and Rockland counties.

The ferry dock on the Hudson River in Ossining for the Haverstraw-Ossining ferry is surrounded by ice Jan. 8, 2015. As a result of the ice conditions, ferry service has been suspended.

TZC said it incurred extra costs for the demolition, which included the retrieval of remains of the old bridge from the river bottom that extended into the summer of 2019.

Foothills denies the claim and says TZC owes it $182,000.

'Time equals money'

TZC’s winning bid was cheered at the Thruway Authority in 2012.

"It's a spectacular day that we have a lower (cost) bridge proposal to save taxpayers and users approximately a billion and a half dollars," Thruway board member E. Virgil Conway said.

Cuomo said TZC’s plan gave New York toll payers “the biggest bang for the buck – with the best price, shortest construction time, minimal dredging, and can accommodate mass transit in the future.”

TZC said it would save money by bringing in the “Left Coast Lifter,” a massive crane that could move a weight equivalent to 12 times the Statue of Liberty. The consortium used the same crane during reconstruction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

The Cuomo Bridge would be the first major project in New York to use a design-build model, which was supposed to fix the cost and leave the contractor responsible for overruns.

Cuomo assigned top aides to make sure the project came in on time and on budget. TZC faced penalties of as much as $120,000 for each day the project came in after the scheduled 2018 opening of the twin span.

But, TZC’s lawsuit claims, the Thruway Authority refused to give the consortium extensions in time even during winter months when icy conditions made it impossible to work on the river and had caused other state agencies to shut work down.

Changes were demanded but extensions were denied.

The conflict was fueled by different interpretations of the meaning of a design-build project.

 “If they wanted a design-bid-build job they could have that $5 billion or $6 billion price and every day, on their dime, they could direct their contractor to do whatever they wanted because the Thruway Authority was paying the bill,” a consortium executive said.

“What we have here is a design-build job but on our lump sum fixed price which is not how the process is supposed to work,” he added. “It would be like a housing inspector coming in to check new electrical wiring and telling the homeowner he needs to replace a wall with plate glass because it would look nicer.”

Matthew Carey, the director of the Center for Financial Market Studies at Iona College’s LaPenta School of Business, has studied the bridge project from the plan’s early days.

He said the design-build process creates economic pressure on the contractor to avoid modifications.

“Design-Build is tricky and time equals money,” Carey said. “The old saying that ‘having too many cooks spoils the soup’ may apply, as you have all sorts of parties involved under the auspices of collaboration, which can slow things to a crawl at a time when the contractor needs to have everything moving along quickly to have financial success.”

He questions whether TZC’s “playbook” included recovering in litigation what it may have lost when its bid came in at $3.14 billion. Other large construction projects have spurred litigation that lasted a decade or more. Boston’s “Big Dig” Central Artery Project generated some $1 billion in legal disputes that dragged on for 15 years, he noted.

Throughout construction, TZC was mostly silent about issues that only recently burst into public view.

Their lawsuit suggests that’s because the Thruway Authority swore them to secrecy.

“NYSTA and its representatives repeatedly requested that TZC refrain from making any statements that would reveal to the public that the Project was delayed or running over budget, all the while insisting that TZC meet arbitrary, politically motivated milestone dates,” the lawsuit alleges.

Philip Plotch, who wrote “Politics Across the Hudson,” a book about the bridge project, said state officials feared talk of the project going over budget.

“Since the Tappan Zee was such a high priority project, the state did not want to publicly discuss cost overruns,” Plotch said. “That would have marred the governor's accomplishment.”

For years, the Cuomo Administration had shied away from discussing just how high bridge toll would need to go to pay for the new bridge. Freedom of Information requests made by The Journal News/lohud.com for state-level discussions of possible toll increases came back with the critical information redacted.

Tolls for New York-based E-Pass users will increase from $4.75 to $5.25 this year and to $5.75 next year except for Rockland and Westchester commuters who get a discount.

Plotch’s book, first published in 2015, hints at the underpinning for the latest dispute between the two sides.

“While state officials were thrilled, Tappan Zee Constructors was not happy that it ‘left money on the table,” Plotch writes. “Ever since, according to one senior official, ‘they have been trying to figure out how to get their money back.’"