For motorists who slam their steering wheels in disgust during daily traffic jams on the Tappan Zee Bridge, the recent reports that the state may — finally — replace it with a wider span probably come as joyous news.
Indeed, according to the $5 billion proposal — which is under discussion as we go to press — the current seven lanes will become 14 (spread out over twin spans), including a lane for pedestrians and cyclists, and exclusive rush-hour lanes for buses. But the project, which could break ground next spring, has also drawn loads of unwanted attention to the current bridge, a cantilever structure built in 1955 that was only expected to last 50 years, or until 2005.
In other words, a stressful ride may have just gotten more so knowing that the road under your wheels, at one of the river’s widest spots, is way past its prime. And because the new bridge won’t likely be completed until 2017, there will still be a lot of trips during which to ponder the issue.
So, how do the structures of the five Hudson River crossings north of the Tap compare?
Well, most are older than the Tappan Zee — although John Bellucci, chief of staff of the New York State Bridge Authority, says not to worry. While a brand-new bridge earns a seven out of seven on the federal safety rating, all the Hudson Valley bridges rate a very respectable five — the highest score an older structure can receive. “We’ve got it down to a science,” Bellucci said. “We can maintain them almost forever.”
The Bridge Authority has also taken aggressive steps in recent years to curb suicides. In 2007, phones connected to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline were installed along railings, near to signs that remind those in distress that “when it seems like there is no hope, there is help.” According to Bellucci, the phones have proven to be very effective in preventing potential jumpers.
The first span to cross the Hudson between New York City and Albany, Bear could also claim to be the longest suspension bridge in the world when its ribbon was cut in 1924, though that fame was short-lived. Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Bridge — which was more than four times longer — opened in 1926.
Today, the bridge — which has one lane of traffic each way and does not allow trucks weighing more than 10 tons — is arguably the most picturesque of the lot, as the cliffs of the Hudson Highlands, draped in trees, form a striking backdrop for its towers at a narrow S-curve in the river. And backpack-clad hikers are a common sight: The Appalachian Trail crosses right over the bridge.
The Newburgh-Beacon carries Interstate 84 over the river. Similar to the Tappan Zee, which Interstate 287 traverses, the Newburgh-Beacon’s capacity was originally underestimated. As the highway grew busier, the two-lane crossing quickly got snarled with lines of cars and trucks, so a second span was added 17 years later.
Officially named the Hamilton Fish Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, for New York’s 16th governor (he was also a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State), the span is the most used of the five by a long shot.
But that popularity comes with a cost: Wear and tear means the southern side is about to get an $80 million deck replacement makeover to extend its life by 40 years The three-year project will temporarily narrow it from three lanes to two.
The swooping cables on this span are strung with LED lights, which can be programmed to display about 16,000 colors for different holidays, à la the Empire State Building. But the Bridge Authority’s Bellucci sheepishly admits that more often than not, the scheme is a basic red, white, and blue.
Also making this bridge a pioneer is the fact that it had a suicide call box installed back in 1984, which officials say has saved numerous lives. A decade ago, the three-lane bridge adopted a flexible traffic pattern: To keep things moving smoothly, heavy eastbound traffic gets two lanes during the morning rush hour, and then westbounders get two lanes after the whistle blows at 5 p.m.
Bridges aren’t always built between the most obvious points. The Kingston-Rhinecliff originally was supposed to arch from Kingston Point, where the lighthouse is, to downtown Rhinebeck, but political pressure relocated it to more rural area three miles north.
Officially named for George Clinton, the first governor of New York, the bridge also has a dubious distinction: There’s no sidewalk for people to walk on — but bicyclists can ride the shoulder — and it’s lined with a vertigo-inducing 54-inch-tall railing. For conquering their fear of heights, bikers don’t have to pay tolls, however.
Whimsically named not for a politician but a fictional character in a Washington Irving story, this bridge, which connects Columbia and Greene counties, has two distinct sections. The cantilevered structure was used over a deep channel, where drilling pilings wasn’t practical; the open, truss section — supported on pilings — traverses shallower water.
Like the other bridges, it sits 145 feet above the high-tide mark, to allow for the passage of tall-masted ships — although the Albany-bound tankers that rumble beneath it usually have plenty of leftover head room.