Monday, October 1, 2012


By Arthur H. Gunther III

     At the Hudson River -- If the British had controlled this mighty waterway above New York City, Gen. Washington would not have successfully moved troops and supplies vital to the battles west and south, the colonies would have been cut in two and we might now be crown subjects. Vital to American defense was a mighty iron chain of 65 tons forged in the Ramapo Mountains and in 1778 laid in just four days from West Point to Constitution Island, effectively blocking British movement north during our American Revolution.  That early “can-do” inventiveness and spirit saved a nation.

Now, in 2012, we see another Hudson crossing in the making, but will it prove to show the same moxie? The test this time is the coming replacement of a mighty bridge that has proven to be weak-kneed. 

The present Tappan Zee Bridge, designed on the cheap so as to get it built quickly to connect the New York State Thruway with Gotham in 1955, is said to be failing. Its main span pontoon structure is perhaps compromised by marine wood-borers and the structure is in need of constant, costly  maintenance, in part because the traffic load, particularly from trucks, is way beyond what was projected in the 1950s. No longer is there a breakdown lane, and there is no provision for adequate mass transit in a commuting region.

So, instead of unending repair, and to foster the image of a New York State that can actually solve some of its immense problems, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has arranged for relatively quick replacement, a five-year or so construction of two crossings side by side with space for possible mass transit in-between (likely bus, remote chance of light or regular rail). Design details, and as important, financing await revelation. So is the final cost, perhaps upwards of $6 billion.

But that’s future history. Back to the past: The Tappan Zee was conceived at the last moment in Thruway planning. The interstate was to end 12 miles away at Suffern and connect to New Jersey roads, which would send travelers to New York City. But since the money men realized there was no viable way to pay off Thruway bonding, the idea of a toll crossing over the Hudson -- long sought, a tunnel was planned in the 1930s -- became paramount. Thus the “cash register on the Hudson” was born, linking west and east of the Hudson to a thruway extended to the Bronx. Trouble is, the route has never been best for trucks. Much of that commerce goes to upper New England, and full interstates through Connecticut to the Atlantic shore route should have been constructed instead of the limited I-84 setup. Without the right road network, the Tappan Zee suffers undue congestion and has become old before its time. Its replacement will do little to relieve truck traffic since the combined crossings will not add significant road space, and no widening is planned where traffic funnels into the river approach. Congestion already exists there, and it will not be relieved.

Also, historically little thought has been given to mass transit for the still-developing commuter region served by the Tappan Zee. For the bridge’s first 20 years, no problems. But after that, increasing congestion. Two commuter rail lines west of the Hudson were actually abandoned in the late 1950s and mid-1960s. Today, in New York State, there is no west-of-the-Hudson one-seat train ride to a major world city just 20 miles away. So very backward, that. 

Probably, there will be no rail lines on the new Hudson crossings, because of the expected heavy cost, though I’d bet that light rail could work. The governor does promise future transit, but can he guarantee that space will be used for mass transit and not truck and car vehicular lanes? We all remember how the highway and trucking lobby commandeered the mass transit space on the George Washington Bridge in 1960,  which not only prevented development of modern commuter and freight rail west of the Hudson River but has greatly added to New York-New Jersey congestion, in a “build-it-and-they-will-come” effect. 

In the bridge rebuild, where is the solution to heavy traffic on both sides,  a workable east-west commuter system, relief from present and future air, visual and noise pollution and from local traffic runoff? The new crossings at the Tappan Zee may well prove beautiful. Surely they must be at this very scenic part of the Hudson. Indeed, give Gov. Cuomo credit for seeking to protect the river scenery in the rebuild by naming a prestigious design committee. Yet artistry cannot begin and end on the river. While the Thruway approach on the Westchester County side has been improved in the I-287 connection reconstruction, the Rockland County interstate connection looks like Fort Apache in the Bronx of the 1970s. The median barrier is beat-up and the cross-over bridges require serious work. Nice palette, but get a bigger paint brush, governor.

Where is the long-term regional planning in this bridge rebuild, big thinking that would enable Rockland, Westchester, lower upstate and the metropolitan area to move to the expanded frontier that should be the 21st century? Are we Americans no longer capable of boldness, the sort that brought us the Great Chain? 

It is not far-fetched to compare creative action that saved a nation to a better-conceived Tappan Zee Bridge replacement. History is again being written on the Hudson River, but present short-sighted government planning seems to have chained our future to mediocrity. This bridge rebuild is like putting it in the middle of a forest, reachable only by a jutted trail. Come up with plans now to improve the interstate leading to the new crossings and add an HOV bus lane from Suffern to Westchester. Start planning for either a light rail connection from the Palisades Center commuter lots to Tarrytown Station on the Hudson Line. And improve the truck routes to New England, bypassing the Tappan Zee. This is a nationally vital crossing, important to commerce and defense, so close to Gotham. Washington must provide reasonable funding for a better rebuild, as it has done for big projects elsewhere in the nation.

Will the new crossings at the Tappan Zee be a resurrection of our can-do pioneering spirit? Not as planned, but we shall see.

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