TARRYTOWN, New York — A credit downgrade took some of the shine off Gov. Andrew Cuomo's celebration Friday of construction on the new Tappan Zee Bridge.
The governor hopped aboard a yellow tugboat and motored out to a construction barge in the middle of the Hudson River, then signed a piling that will soon be driven into the riverbed.
"A new bridge for a new New York," Cuomo wrote above his name as cars and trucks zipped overhead on the existing bridge. He was commemorating the recent start of construction on the $3.9 billion project to replace an aging, overused span on the state Thruway between Westchester and Rockland counties.
At about the same time, Moody's Investor Service became the second major rating agency in a month to downgrade Thruway bonds. It trimmed the rating from A1 to A2. Both Moody's and Standard & Poor's Ratings Service noted that the bonds will depend on toll increases and the Thruway has not yet announced what tolls will be on the new bridge. Moody's also questioned the Thruway Authority's ability to manage the construction of such a complex project.
Both ratings services declared the Thruway's outlook "stable," however.
Thomas Madison, executive director of the Thruway Authority, said the agency had streamlined and cut expenses and is confident its credit "will remain stable or improve."
The project had been buoyed last week when a low-interest, $1.6 billion federal loan was approved. The balance of the $3.9 billion project will be paid through a toll increase.
The Associated Press reported last month that experts have been concerned about the project's finances and lack of toll information. They said the cost might have to be extended to highway tolls statewide and the state budget might have to subsidize the Thruway Authority.
State officials say there are no plans for toll increases statewide.
Cuomo said earlier Friday that it's too soon to determine what the toll will be when the bridge opens in 2018. And he noted that tolls on many bridges in nearby New York City are higher than the Tappan Zee's basic $5 toll. The governor said he will appoint a commission to make toll recommendations.
Last year, when others in the administration mentioned the possibility of a $14 toll, Cuomo said that would be too high.
The governor went to the Tappan Zee site Friday to commemorate the recent start of actual construction. For months, the site in the Hudson River has been busy with pre-construction activity, including dredging and building platforms.
En route, he was briefed by construction officials, and afterward said the project was on time and on budget so far and had created 600 jobs. His office said he would be getting monthly briefings.
"As a project it's phenomenal," Cuomo said in an interview as the tugboat returned to its dock. "But for the state overall it's a metaphor for the possibilities this state has."
He said he was "very excited" at the thought that that he'll likely be remembered as the governor who pushed the bridge into construction.
"There was a reason this was delayed for 20 years," he said. "It's expensive. It's controversial. But I said, 'I'm not going to take that defeatist attitude.'"
Associated Press Writer Michael Gormley contributed to this report from Albany, New York