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State of New York State History

A Rose by Any Other Name Is Still the Tappan Zee Bridge

What can we learn from the controversy over the naming of the Tappan Zee Bridge? What lessons can be drawn by looking at the larger picture? Let’s examine the data and see if we can put the pieces together. Start with the above-the-fold headline in my local paper on August 31, 2018:

Cuomo or Tappan Zee: Names Feed Identity Crisis by Frank Esposito, Rockland/Westchester Journal News

The article recounted the ongoing struggle to preserve the historic name of Tappan Zee Bridge in contrast to the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. The former bridge could be located in one and only one place; the latter bridge could be located anywhere in the state. Confusion continues given the signs to the Tappan Zee Bridge which still exist on the highways and byways, in the internet, and in our minds. The article ends with a reference to the son in the gubernatorial debate when he, too, referred to the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The article on page 3 on the same day is entitled “Cuomo Pressed on Tappan Zee Name, Toll” by Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau. The moderator asked the candidate if he is open to renaming the bridge.

By coincidence, earlier in the same month, Tappan and Rockland County resident Steve Dunlop wrote an opinion piece for the same newspaper entitled ’Tappan Zee’ Played Pivotal Role in American Revolution (8/5/18). Dunlop was referring to the “Tappan Sea Skirmish” using the British name (“zee” suffered the same fate as “New Amsterdam” when the British replaced the Dutch). The skirmishes were on August 3 and 16, 1776, in attacks on the five British frigates anchored near where the current bridge is located. Dunlop declares that the unexpected resistance offered by the Americans served to inspire other Americans along the Hudson Valley and put the British on notice.

Pushing back to June, the headline in the local paper was:

Tappan Zee Bridge Name Supporters Deliver Petitions to Andrew Cuomo (6/7/18). The article also was by Jon Campbell who has chronicled the violation of federal regulations with Cuomo’s I LoveNY highway signs (see below). The article reported the delivery to the Governor’s office by ten members of Save Our Tappan Zee of a two-foot high petition with over 108, 000 signatures asking for the change of the name to the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Tappan Zee Bridge.

The previous day an article Tappan Zee Bridge Name Change Awakens a Grassroots Movement that Cuomo Can’t Stop appeared in the local paper by the aforementioned Steve Dunlop. I imagine the title was crafted by the newspaper and not the guest writer. Dunlop described the process of the name change by Cuomo as follows:

The vast majority of New Yorkers don’t pay attention [to Capital politics]. Gov. Andrew Cuomo knows this well. A master of statecraft, he exploited that very somnolence when he snuck the name change at the close of the 2017 legislative session, then stuck it in the session-ending reconciliation session. He did it with no fanfare, and not even a token attempt to muster public support. He did it because he could. And he could because no one was looking.

Dunlop reports on a growing grassroots effort by the history community, especially in Rockland County, to advocate for something specific in Albany. Remember the advocacy motto: No “asks” means “No gets.” Now the history community is asking.

How much of Tappan history do you think the Governor knew before making this change? Do you think when the Governor was contemplating changing the name of Tappan Zee Bridge he ever inquired into the meaning of that name? Do you think he inquired of the New York State historian how it came to be that the bridge had the name that it did? Do you think he inquired of the scholars who have written about the building of the bridge or the development of Rockland County after its completion? Has he documented any connection between his father and the Tappan Zee Bridge sufficient to warrant the name change? Did he do his homework?

By now it is not surprising to realize that our Governor has a sincere but superficial interest in New York State history. Over the years, I have had the unfortunate honor to write numerous blogs about the failure of the once-promising Path through History project. I also had the unfortunate honor to write about the still ongoing violation of federal regulations with the highway signs that included the Path through History. I will not repeat that information here.

But as I tracked the shortcomings in the Path through History project, I wondered if the Path project was unique in this development. Was it a one-of-kind failure or was it symptomatic of multiple programs? Historians know that unique is not a pattern that one should not pass judgment on the whole based on the example of the one.

As I result I began to notice other new programs which had been created recently. I wondered how they were working out. I am not referring to the 80% of life which is showing up, of maintaining the current programs which exist on their own momentum. Instead, I looked to the new and unprecedented to compare their execution with that of the Path through History.

The first new program I noticed was called Start-Up NY. Cuomo launched he program in 2013 effective in 2014. It allows businesses to move into tax-free zones on or near college campuses and pay no taxes for 10 years. Shortly thereafter, I began to notice articles that suggested the Start-Up initiative was an even bigger failure than the Path was. Here are a sample of some headlines from my local papers that I accumulated over the years.

2/6/15 Report: Agency Generates Few Jobs by Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
4/22/15 Facing Criticism, Cuomo Defends Start-Up by Joseph Spector
5/15/15 Jobs Effort That Cuomo Vowed Would Fire Up Economy Is Slow to Take Hold by Susanne Craig and Jesse McKinley (NYT)
5/27/15 Corporate Welfare Fails to Deliver the Jobs: The Sad Case of Start-Up NY
by Lawrence S. Wittner, Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany on Start-Up NY and SUNY. Because the author had been a history professor, the article received some traction in the history community (History News Network).
1/20/17 Cuomo Changes Name and Focus of Jobs Effort by Vivian Yee (NYT)
The article reported that the program that cost nearly $50 million in 2014 to produce 76 jobs and $53 million in 2015 to produce another 332 jobs would henceforth be called Excelsior Business Program. These numbers appeared in other articles as well.
2/2/17 Lawmakers, NY Economic Czar on Job Growth by Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
Without meaning to, Howard Zemsky, Empire State Development President and CEO, implied that changing the name is a good thing given the previous failure associated with the name by the media.
4/3/17 Start-Up NY created 757 Positions in ’16 by Jon Campbell
5/28/17 How Business “Partnerships” Flopped at America’s Largest University by Lawrence Wittner, writing two years after his earlier foray (History News Network).
8/26/18 Cuomo’s Jobs Record: The Good, Bad, and Ugly by Jon Campbell
Under “The Bad,” the first item is Start-Up NY. No one seems to call it Excelsior Business Program. Changing names is not so easy. The English actually had to conquer New Amsterdam to make that change work!

I do not claim to have made an exhaustive story of the Start-Up NY program. I can say simply as someone trying to be an informed voter, the optics for the Start-Up NY program are pitiful. From an historian perspective, what is interesting is that as with the Path through History, Start-Up NY was a government initiative that comes across as a failure to anyone not dependent on the state government.

With that thought in mind, let’s briefly turn to the Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) funding better known as “hunger games” in political circles. In a scathing analysis of its shortcomings and failures by Riley Edwards, research associate at the Citizens Budget Commission, he concludes:

Rather than pursuing headline-grabbing projects in which taxpayers are the ones on the hook when a deal falls through, or providing excessive, narrowly targeted tax breaks, the state should consider approaches that provide more widespread benefit. Investments in infrastructure, workforce development, and higher education, as well as a more competitive tax system, can improve New York’s ability to attract and retain employers.

Along the same lines, Stephanie Miner, Democrat and former Syracuse mayor running for governor as an independent, has called for the state to cease operating a host of economic development efforts. She says, they waste taxpayers dollars and fail to live up to the hype (Former Syracuse Mayor Calls for End of State Economic Development Programs by Tom Precious, Buffalo News, 7/31/18). Miner said the billions of dollars directed to economic development projects for which both Democrats and Republicans take credit should be earmarked for a massive and well-defined infrastructure improvement effort for public transit systems, water and sewer projects, decaying bridges and pothole-strewn roads.  “Government should not be in a position of picking winners and losers,’’ she said of the programs. She highlighted such efforts as the Buffalo Billion, which she said has failed to live up to early job prediction estimates and was the subject of a recent bid-rigging corruption trial that ended up with the conviction of longtime Buffalo businessman Louis Ciminelli and others.

While some of these comments can be attributed to electioneering, the general thrust seems valid. Government should focus on infrastructure and not picking winners and losers. That’s for the market to do. On the other hand, when Cuomo responded by touting his development plans underway at LaGuardia Airport, he did not disclose the name change for the renovated facility.  Once again, as someone seeking to be an informed voter, the optics for “Hunger Games” seem pitiful.

How about those I LoveNY signs? They cost over $8 million much of which went to out-of-state vendors. This government initiative still faces a September 30 deadline for removal. The penalty is $14 million loss in federal highway funding for New York. Three headlines in my local paper tell the story of the Governor’s thinking:

NY’s Plan: Swap I Love NY Signs with Similar One by Jon Campbell (2/15/18)
I Love NY signs likely won’t come down by summer as promised by Jon Campbell (6/6/18)
Millions on Line in Spat over Signs by Chris Carola (8/7/18).

A Governor willing to risk $14 million in funding is not going to be swayed by 108,000 signatures on a petition to change the name of a bridge.

One last headline:

Cuomo Had the MTA Waste $30M on Tunnel Vanity Project by Danielle Furfaro, Lois Weiss and Nolan Hicks (New York Post, 7/22/18).

Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the cash-strapped MTA to waste as much as $30 million on his latest vanity project — retiling two city tunnels in the state’s blue-and-gold color scheme — instead of using the dough for desperately needed subway repairs, The Post has learned.

The boondoggle began soon after the taxpayer-funded agency ordered white tiles to reline the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens Midtown tunnels after Superstorm Sandy, documents show.

The governor got wind of the plan — and insisted that the cash-strapped transit agency add stripes of blue and gold, thinking nothing of the additional $20 million to $30 million cost, according to sources and project documentation.

Is there a commonality to these government actions?

Instead of considering the Path through History in isolation from the other initiatives…

Instead of considering the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in isolation from the other initiatives…

look at all these other projects together. Maybe it should be no surprise that the Path through History project failed or that vanity trumped history with the renaming of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

17 thoughts on “A Rose by Any Other Name Is Still the Tappan Zee Bridge

  1. The bridge renaming was done by the Gov with NO public input. In a similar fashion, no public input was requested before Cuomo legislated to permit ex-felons to vote once more. Not to run for judgeships, become teachers, become a policeman, serve on a jury, own firearms, etc., ….. JUST return their right to vote, knowing that the majority will vote with HIS party. Not a swinger, as NY will remain Democratic forever, until it runs out of so many electors that no one will even care. It’s on that track right now. Perhaps just a few more tax increases and no one with money will stick around. Can’t wait to see how funding THEN will take place here.

    Maybe raise the bridge tolls to $150 per trip ?

  2. Peter,

    Great blog. As you know I do a weekly newspaper history column. This bridge naming controversy has bothered from the first time I heard about it. I would like to run your blog as a guest column. Unfortunately the paper limits me to 6 to 700 words. I think it would still carry some punch if I ended it with the paragraph ending with “Did he do his homework?” What do you think? Are you willing to let me run it as a guest column with your name?

    Warm regards,

  3. Dear Mr. Feinman,

    Someone sent me a link to your recent article, “A Rose by Any Other Name ….. “. Fantastic piece! I am on the board of Save Our Tappan Zee, Inc. We are the organization behind the petition (111,000 signers and climbing) that was delivered to Gov. Cuomo in June. You are correct. He doesn’t care.

    But we are not giving up. We communicate regularly with our supporters and encouraged them to push CBS to include the Tappan Zee question in the debate. The issue is now on the radar in the rest of the state … not just the Hudson Valley. If Cuomo doesn’t budge now, during election season while the pressure is on, he will never budge. So we are trying to keep this issue in the news and relevant and hope that Andrew starts seeing “The Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge” as a liability that he has to reckon with. We may not get there, but we are trying! In the meantime, we know that Marc Molinaro will restore the Tappan Zee name to the bridge if he is elected. Cynthia Nixon hasn’t gone that far, but she has called out the Governor for his obnoxious move and has hinted that maybe she would support the compromise (The Mario M Cuomo / Tappan Zee bridge … WITH THE WORDING OF ALL EXISTING SIGNS REMAINING UNCHANGED).

    We have reached out to historical societies in the Hudson Valley and the brave ones have stepped forward and either created resolutions in support of restoring the Tappan Zee name or endorsed a statement of support for same. Question: would you consider writing an editorial for one of the local newspapers? I’m not sure what’s involved … I imagine you’d have to first get the go-ahead from the newspapers. If that’s not possible, perhaps a letter to the editors of a select few newspapers ? Just a thought … you are a very legitimate authority on the history of New York and I would think that your thoughts on this issue would carry some weight. Not sure if you’re interested but figure I’d throw it out there as a suggestion.

    Thanks so much …. really enjoyed your article – and I learned a few things I didn’t know!!

    Marlene Pedersen
    Board Member
    Save Our Tappan Zee, Inc

    1. Thanks Marlene. I will be sending the blog to the press and various political people. As for an editorial, Steve Dunlop already wrote one for the local paper so I don’t think another one would be printed.

  4. Well done piece you posted today Peter. One might think that indeed the bloom may be off the Cuomo rose for you. After the SNAFU he has delivered on the Remsen-Lake Placid rail transportation corridor (BTW, the single largest historic register property in NYS) I heartily am in your camp on this.

    Best regards.

  5. Peter – that’s beautiful and hysterical. Great job. I’m sending it to a couple friends.

  6. There is no need to change the name of the Tappan Zee Bridge to the Mario Cuomo Bridge. It wastes a lot of money to have to change all of the signs on the highways leading to the bridge, not only in New York, but also in New Jersey. The funds required to replace these signs with new ones could be better used fixing up the highways instead.

    1. Forget that argument , we tried that with the Triboro but they told us that the signs need to be changed every 10- 15 years which is nonsense because I’ve seen signs from just after the war.

  7. Peter,

    This has nothing to do with the Tappan Zee Bridge but it was a good article. I want to know if you are aware of a movement by the Canal Corp to decommission boats tugs, tenders and others from the Erie Canal Fleet and some will be added to an artificial reef off of Long Island. Only one such canal boat has been installed at this point. I will forward you in some of the emails about this controversy to see what you think.


  8. If the Brooklyn Bridge needed to be replaced and Governor Andrew Cuomo put his father’s name on the bridge, how would the people react?

    1. You raise an interesting point. If you did want to name something after Mario Cuomo, what should it be? Something in Queens where he lived or in Albany where he governed?

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