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$1.6B federal loan approved for Tappan Zee bridge

Michael Virtanen, Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- A $1.6 billion federal loan has been approved for replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River north of New York City, officials said Thursday.

Plans call for building two new spans, with the first done in the summer of 2016, the second in 2018, and tearing down the old bridge but using the same landings. Construction is proceeding on the project, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. The cost has been estimated at roughly $4 billion.

"Because it was a big project, we needed a big loan," he said, noting it's a record for similar highway projects. "This adds a critical piece, which is a financing piece."

Asked about the expected tolls for drivers on the bridge or other parts of the state Thruway system, Cuomo said other questions need to be answered first, including actual construction and project management costs and the time required, which will affect the financing costs. A group is working on financing and toll plans, he said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said the loan decision followed a creditworthiness review, and the next step will be the closing and execution of a loan agreement. Replacing the Tappan Zee, an integral part of Interstate 87 on the New York's Thruway, will put people to work and make travel safer on one of the East Coast's busiest routes, according to the agency.

The Thruway Authority plans to issue another $2.4 billion in debt for the project, said Executive Director Tom Madison. He said the long-term federal loan is low-interest, the rate to be set at closing targeted for early December. The rate Thursday was 3.62 percent. The loan term is up to 35 years.

On Tuesday, Standard & Poor's Ratings Service downgraded the rating for bonds sold by the Thruway Authority from A-plus to A over concerns about how much tolls will increase.

Cuomo had once sought a low-cost federal loan to cover 49 percent of the project, but the Transportation Department has lowered the percentage it's willing to fund.

The existing toll bridge opened to traffic in 1955, designed to carry up to 100,000 vehicles daily. State officials say about 138,000 vehicles cross it daily.

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