Story by Jon Bowermaster
Film by Chris Rahm

hen the original Tappan Zee Bridge was built in the early 1950s, by an ambitious governor named Thomas E. Dewey, it was the largest bridge ever built, partially because it spanned the second widest spot on the Hudson River.

Why build where the river is at its widest? Dewey wanted the toll money in order to help finance his brand new New York State Thruway system. If the bridge had been built just two-tenths of a mile further south it would have fallen within 25 miles of the Statue of Liberty thus under the jurisdiction and bank account of the Port Authority, which had a monopoly over all of New York’s bridges and tunnels.

…More than 400 workers commute each day to 130 floating cranes, barges and tugboats to work on what will ultimately be the world’s widest bridge.

1955: The opening of the original Tappan Zee Bridge.

Sixty-five years later, the original three-mile long bridge – which cost $81 million and was postponed until after the Korean War due to a national lack of steel – is being replaced. The prime motivator is Governor Andrew Cuomo, who intends to spend more than $4 billion on not one, but two new, side-by-side bridges. Financing for the project, currently the largest construction job in North America, is still not quite complete and the governor is being very secretive about his plans to pay for it. He attempted to get a low-interest loan under the Clean Water Act for $500 million, but the EPA shut him down. He’s still got a couple years to find the money.

The new construction is a massive undertaking. More than 400 workers commute each day to 130 floating cranes, barges and tugboats to work on what will ultimately be the world’s widest bridge. Plants from Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia are shipping more than 100,000 tons of steel to Nyack; welded plate girders 60 to 120 feet long are being constructed north of the site and shipped by barge downriver. The world’s largest floating crane, with its own name – the Left Coast Lifter – has been on-site since last October; its first lift was a 600-ton piling cap. Eventually it will be lifting 1,000-ton sections.

Plans are for the first new bridge to open in 2016, then the original will be torn down. The second span is expected to be finished sometime in 2018.

It should go without saying that such a massive construction project is impacting the local environment. It’s been up to the Hudson Riverkeeper and other monitors to make sure they continue to have  access to the project’s decision-makers and that agreements to protect the environment made before construction began are lived up to.

Rendering of Completed New NY Bridge. (Photo: New York State Thruway Authority)

Environmental oncerns? Noise, for a starter. Pilings several hundred feet long are being pounded into the river bottom all day long – bang, bang, bang, bang – impacting residents of both Nyack and Tarrytown as well as the wildlife that calls the river home. Dredging is a concern, so is protecting the river floor. Wildlife habitats – from sturgeon and oysters to peregrine falcons – are being altered, as is the nearby Piermont Marsh.

I’m most curious about how they plan to take down the 197 piers, 18,400 timber pilings and all that lead-based paint and asbestos that make up the original bridge without polluting the Hudson in the process. The intent is to recycle as much of the steel as possible, which means cutting it, disassembling it, loading it into barges and shipping it.

There were options to building the two new spans. Repairing the existing bridge was one, digging a tunnel was another (which would have also provided more options for mass transit). But from Dewey to Cuomo, there’s one thing all Governors love: Cutting ribbons on massive construction projects built during their tenure.

Since Governor Cuomo has indicated he’ll run for a third term in 2018, even if the new Tappan Zee project runs slightly behind, chances are he’ll still be the ribbon-cutter-in-chief whenever it opens.

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