The future of the Tappan Zee Bridge

Why is a column that usually writes about Connecticut’s transportation problems suddenly interested in the Tappan Zee Bridge? Because the pending rebuilding of this bridge across the Hudson River will have a major impact on our lives, our economy and travel patterns.

The mighty Hudson River is what separates New England from the rest of the country. Sure, you can cross over or under the water by car on any number of bridges and tunnels in New York City, but north of the George Washington Bridge there are few options. And for freight trains, there are none, short of going all the way to Albany.

When it was originally envisioned in 1950, the new trans-Hudson bridge was going to be built by the Port Authority between Dobbs Ferry and Piermont, N.Y. Instead the New York State Thruway chose the wider, but shallower section a few miles north between Nyack and Tarrytown, N.Y. Opening in 1955, the bridge was soon followed by the Cross-Westchester Expressway (now Interstate 287) in 1960, forever linking access to Connecticut from the West. (A planned extension of I-287 over Long Island Sound as the Oyster Bay-Rye Bridge never came to pass.)

The Tappan Zee, like our old Metro-North rail cars, has been repaired, patched and kept going long beyond its 50-year life expectancy. Maintenance costs over the past four years have cost $389 million. The old, seven lane bridge is actually falling apart and was highlighted on a recent History Channel documentary about our nation’s crumbling infrastructure as a disaster waiting to happen. Think: Collapse.

Even the White House recognizes the urgency of replacing the bridge, putting the Tappan Zee on a list of 14 projects to receive expedited federal approval. And while New York State has opted for a design/build replacement — where the winning bidder designs and builds the new structure, rather than working from a state-created blueprint — the $5.2 billion project may get underway this summer.

The real question is: What kind of vehicles will use the new bridge?

While most of the traffic (170,000 crossings per day recently, 10 times the original traffic in 1955) is private cars, the bridge is also a crucial truck crossing, especially for cargo bound for Connecticut. There are also commuter buses from Rockland County connecting to Metro-North.

Many say the new Tappan Zee should also carry trains, or at the very least offer dedicated BRT (bus rapid transit) lanes, but neither is in the current plans. This is a huge mistake.

An East-West rapid transit corridor, rail or bus, running from Rockland County across the new bridge, then down the median of the Cross-Westchester Expressway (I-287) and connecting with I-95 and the New Haven Line of Metro-North/Amtrak, would be a game changer. So much of our mass transit runs on a hub and spoke system, into and out of New York City, while we lack an east-west connection. To miss the once-in-a-century opportunity to accommodate mass transit on a new Tappan Zee Bridge would be a tremendous loss.

But as with the much discussed MTA plan to run Metro-North into Penn Station, the future of the Tappan Zee (and with it, Connecticut’s link to the west) lies in Albany, not Hartford. New York will again decide our fate with no input from those of us in Connecticut.

Much has been made of late about what to do with the old bridge after the new one opens. The latest plan is to leave the bridge open as a pedestrian and cyclist walk-way, much like the repurposed Highline on Manhattan’s west side. Demolition would cost $150 million, they say, so why not turn the old bridge into a cement park?

It’s a shame that so much discussion has focused on this petty, parochial side issue when the real question about building the new structure to handle more than cars and trucks seems pushed aside.

 

Jim Cameron has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years. He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA. You can reach him at [email protected] or trainweb.org/ct

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