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New Mario Cuomo Bridge comes with some questions

Gov. Mario Cuomo's portrait hangs in the Hall of Governors at the State Capitol.
Karen DeWitt
Gov. Mario Cuomo's portrait hangs in the Hall of Governors at the State Capitol.

Later this summer, the new Tappan Zee Bridge will be named in honor of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, the current governor’s father. But the renaming of the bridge came with a bit of controversy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo initially proposed renaming the bridge in honor of his late father in the waning hours of the 2017 legislative session. The Senate approved the measure, which also has a provision that honors longtime Sen. Bill Larkin, a Korean War veteran.

But the Assembly did not pass the bill, even though a third provision would rename Manhattan’s Riverbank Park after retiring Assemblyman Denny Farrell, a Cuomo family friend.

The governor added it to an omnibus bill that the Legislature passed in a special session in late June, and it was signed the next day.

The governor was so eager to rename the bridge that he used what is known as a “message of necessity” to bypass the required three-day waiting period between when a bill is introduced and when it can be voted on.

Messages are supposed to be reserved for emergencies but are often misused for routine purposes, said Ron Deutsch with the watchdog group Fiscal Policy Institute.

“As a rule, we don’t like messages of necessity,” Deutsch said.

Deutsch said while it’s “wonderful” that lawmakers want to honor Mario Cuomo, the renaming of a bridge does not meet the criteria for an emergency message.

“I think that’s something that could obviously wait,” he said. “I don’t see any sense of urgency in renaming a bridge.”

Cuomo said he got the idea to rename the bridge just one day before the session was to end. He said Farrell suggested it at a private breakfast held at the governor’s mansion in Farrell’s honor. He said he saw no reason to delay.

“Either you want to do it or you don’t want to do it,” Cuomo said. “If you want to do it, do it now.”

The hasty passage of the measure was not the only mini-controversy. The current bridge is named for Malcolm Wilson, a former governor. USA Today reported that Malcolm Wilson’s daughter was upset that her father’s name would no longer be on the bridge, which is formally known as the Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge, a name that also honors Native Americans and Dutch settlers.

Cuomo said Wilson’s name is not technically being taken off the bridge because the old bridge, built in the 1950s and designed to last 50 years, is being replaced with an entirely new structure.

“That bridge will no longer exist,” said Cuomo, who said the new bridge is designed to last for 100 years.

“If it comes down, then they’ll build a new bridge, and they’ll name it after someone else,” said Cuomo, who said he won’t be around to see that day.

But perhaps the largest question surrounding the naming of the new bridge is: Would Mario Cuomo have wanted it?

The liberal icon famously scorned what he considered “vanity” acts by politicians. For years, he refused to sit for a portrait to hang in the Capitol’s Hall of Governors. His family finally had the picture painted from a photograph and presented it to him as a surprise gift.

So, his son admitted, his father would likely not be entirely pleased.

“On that line of reasoning, I’m sure if you said, ‘Would you like to see a bridge named after you?,’ he would say no,” Cuomo said.

But Cuomo said his father respected acknowledgements of public service and he did approve of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel being named for his predecessor, former Gov. Hugh Carey.

The Mario Cuomo Bridge is scheduled to partially open in August and be fully operational by 2018. The exact cost of the approximately $4 billion project, and the ultimate price for tolls, is still to be determined.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.