Cuomo, Senate Replace Bridge Authority Board

The Bear Mountain Bridge (Photo by Larry Fitzpatrick)

Five current members removed before terms end

The state Senate on Thursday (July 23) approved the appointment of a new, seven-member board for the New York Bridge Authority, the independent agency that oversees five Mid-Hudson Valley bridges.

The new commissioners include Louie Lanza, a Garrison resident who owns six Peekskill restaurants, and Joan McDonald, a Mahopac resident who is the director of operations for the Westchester County executive.

Board members are volunteers who serve five-year terms.

The New York Bridge Authority operates entirely on tolls collected at the Bear Mountain, Newburgh-Beacon and two other bridges. It also oversees the Walkway Over the Hudson. Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year met resistance from Hudson Valley elected officials when he proposed a merger of the Bridge Authority with the state-run Thruway Authority, which operates the Mario Cuomo Bridge, formerly the Tappan Zee.

During state budget negotiations, Cuomo was given the power to nominate seven new commissioners for the board, which had two vacancies. At the time, four of the five members had one or two years left on their terms but those were immediately expired under the agreement with legislators. The Bridge and Thruway agencies will also work together to share services.

“We all expected the governor would take this action,” said Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro in a statement. “The real test for these individuals and the governor is whether or not they’ll guarantee bridge authority revenue and expenses remain for Hudson Valley bridges. Fleecing hardworking commuters to support another bloated or broke state agency or authority would be offensive at best.”

Sen. Sue Serino, a Republican whose district includes the Highlands, warned stakeholders “to remain vigilant in monitoring the measure to ensure that it does not result in a de facto takeover.

“What is the reason for cutting short the terms of these dedicated public officials if not to replace them with people more apt to agree with your position?” she asked.

At a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee held by video conference on July 23 to question the seven nominees before their names were sent to the floor, Sen. James Skoufis, a Democrat whose Mid-Hudson Valley district stretches along the west side of the river, asked each candidate about how he or she would respond if the governor pressured commissioners to allow a merger.

Newburgh-Beacon_Bridge_2

The Newburgh-Beacon Bridge (Wikipedia)

“I would not go for a merger or anything like that based on what I’ve been told and what I’ve read about it,” said Lanza, who was nominated to the board as one of its two Westchester County representatives. “I would definitely be for the Bridge Authority and its best interests.”

Skoufis asked Lanza if he would be “insulated and resistant to any political pressure. The governor’s office calls up and says, ‘I want you to vote this way’ — what can you do to assure us you’ll be impervious to that kind of political pressure?”

“Based on my reputation, I always do what’s best for the community, and the residents and the businesses,” Lanza replied. “I consider that part of my integrity and I’ll stay that way. I wouldn’t have to be worried about being pressured by the governor.”

Sen. Patty Richey, a Republican whose district is northeast of Syracuse, also asked Lanza about his independence. He replied: “Being a resident of Garrison and having Peekskill businesses, the Bear Mountain Bridge has been a big part of my life for the last 15 years. I feel strongly about the importance of the bridges and that they stay pristine and stay affordable and they continue to do what they are doing. I can separate church and state, for sure.”

Skoufis next asked McDonald, who was nominated as the Putnam County representative, if she would commit to be among “the vocal opposition” to any proposed merger.

“I can’t say one or another; what I can say is I will look at all sides of the issue,” she replied. She said discussion of a merger “is more than anything a dialogue with the Legislature, not the purview of the Bridge Authority.”

The other new commissioners are:

■ Michael O’Brien, a Dutchess County resident who worked at IBM for 35 years, including most recently in mergers and acquisitions, and served 15 years on the Fishkill Planning Board;
■ Ilan Gibert, a former Yorktown supervisor;
■ Alex Berardi, the president of Trailways.com, who lives in Ulster County;
■ Maria Bruni, Middletown’s director of community development; and
■ Colin Jarvis, the executive director of Newburgh Ministry.

The Finance Committee advanced all the nominees for consideration by the full Senate, although Skoufis supported Lanza and Berardi only “without recommendation,” and Richey did the same for McDonald.

The board members whose terms were expired are Richard Gerentine (first appointed in 2006), Roderick Dressel (1997), Diane Jablonski (2016) and Henry Stanton (2016). Roger Higgins, whose term would have expired this year, was nominated and approved as the Dutchess County representative on the Stewart Airport Commission.

The Bridge Authority voted in December to raise tolls at its bridges over the next four years to finance repairs of the Bear Mountain and Rip Van Winkle bridges, replace the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge’s north span deck and painting and paving projects, as well as the transition to all-electronic tolling.

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