If this were a docudrama, it might be called “A Bridge Too Far.” If it were a television game show, it would be “The $4 Billion Question.” Instead, it’s a timely real-life, stranger-than-fiction answer to a decades-old anomaly: Why did New York State build the Tappan Zee Bridge at one of the wider points on the Hudson River?
The question is more than a mere historical footnote. It is integral to why the planned replacement for the decrepit 56-year-old span that connects Westchester and Rockland Counties is expected to cost more than $4 billion and why visionary state officials are now stuck with what may seem like a short-sighted political decision made a half century ago.
At roughly $250,000 a linear foot, the difference between a three-mile-long-bridge at the gaping mouth of Tappan Bay and one farther south where the river narrows to just a mile or two in width is apparent.
Because the bridge is already stretched beyond its projected 50-year lifespan and carries 40 percent more vehicles daily than the 100,000 originally anticipated, the Cuomo administration is accelerating its replacement.
On Monday, the state’s Thruway Authority voted to accept a $3.1 billion bid from a consortium called Tappan Zee Constructors. Another $600 million or so will be spent on managing and financing the project.
“The old Tappan Zee Bridge simply wasn’t built to last or serve the growing region around it which is why Governor Cuomo is building a 21st century bridge that will ease congestion, include a path for pedestrians and bikers, be mass transit ready and be built to last over 100 years without major repair,” Brian Conybeare, a special adviser to the governor, said.
A new twin-span, to begin construction in 2013 and completed about six years later, will have eight traffic lanes (instead of seven), shoulders and an emergency lane.
Since the Pataki administration announced plans for a replacement in 1999, Mr. Cuomo’s office said, the state has held 430 public meetings, explored 150 concepts and spent $88 million without agreeing on a final plan, much less beginning construction. Building a replacement bridge or tunnel further south where the river narrows was not considered a practical option for two reasons.
First, it would leave the existing two links of the New York State Thruway, in Tarrytown and South Nyack, dangling fecklessly at the shoreline.
And, second, it might prompt a jurisdictional dispute with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — just the sort of conflict that resulted in the original decision by Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, to build the bridge at Tarrytown, the river’s second widest spot after nearby Haverstraw Bay.
Actually, the debate can be traced to 1890 when Congress chartered a private company to build a toll bridge across the Hudson. It never happened. The company’s proposal to span the river from West 57th Street was finally abandoned in the 1930s after objections from Manhattan property-owners and from the Port Authority, which argued that it would obstruct navigation and compete with revenues from the new George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel.
In mapping the proposed Thruway less than two decades later, transportation planners had several options and a more sparsely populated canvas than they do today. They could go due south from Albany and connect with the New Jersey Turnpike, or cross the river into Westchester to link with the New England Thruway. Dewey favored the New England connection.
Meanwhile, the Port Authority was mulling another bridge of its own near Dobbs Ferry, just across from the New Jersey border and where the river is only about a mile wide. The Dobbs Ferry site was within the 25-mile radius from the Statue of Liberty, which defined the authority’s domain.
Thruway engineers asked the authority to waive its jurisdiction, but were told that its bondholders had been promised that the authority would have exclusive rights to construct a Hudson River bridge or tunnel within its own territory.
Dewey was not inclined to share toll revenue with New Jersey and wanted all the tolls from a new bridge reserved to help finance the Thruway. He vetoed the Port Authority plans to build a span of its own, and decided to place the new bridge as far south as possible, but just outside (by less than a mile) the authority’s turf on a site that 14 years before had been deemed too expensive and “beyond any self-liquidating possibility.”
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 18, 2012
In an earlier version of this post, the length of the Tappan Zee Bridge was mistakenly given as 3.1 miles long. It is three miles long.