A few years ago, Barry LePatner, a construction attorney and nationally renowned infrastructure expert, gave a speech up in Rockland County in which he discussed the nearby Tappan Zee Bridge. Built 58 years ago, the three-mile-long span, which crosses the Hudson River from South Nyack to Tarrytown in Westchester County, is one of the region’s busiest and most vital roadways—a major passenger and trucking route connecting New York and points west to New England that allows vehicles to skirt the gridlock of the Greater New York metropolitan area. The Tappan Zee, LePatner told the assembled crowd of New York State finance officials, is also one of the most decrepit, and potentially dangerous, bridges in the country.
LePatner, who is the author of a book called Too Big to Fall and who routinely offers dire warnings about the condition of America’s vital infrastructure, considers the Tappan Zee his “scary of scaries.” Yet even he was taken aback when, after the speech, a state official sidled up and implied that things were worse, even, than LePatner imagined. The man asked LePatner how often he crosses the bridge. Maybe twice a year, LePatner told him, to go antiquing in Nyack. “That’s enough,” the official replied.
For the record, the New York State Thruway Authority, which controls the Tappan Zee, insists the bridge is in no immediate danger of falling down. But the 140,000 or so people who travel daily across the seven-lane span, which was built to handle a fraction of that traffic load, can be forgiven for having their doubts. The Tappan Zee routinely sheds chunks of concrete, like so much dandruff, into the river below. Engineering assessments have found that everything from steel corrosion to earthquakes to maritime accidents could cause major, perhaps catastrophic, damage to the span. Last July, one of Governor Cuomo’s top aides referred to the Tappan Zee as the “hold-your-breath bridge.”
After years of dithering, stopgap maintenance, and $88 million worth of studies, Cuomo fast-tracked plans to replace the bridge shortly after taking office in 2011. In December, state officials selected a design for a proposed new, $3.1 billion span. Construction, scheduled to begin this year, could be completed as soon as 2017.
The last hurdle to clear is financing. Last year, an analysis by a group co-chaired by Richard Ravitch and Paul Volcker questioned whether the Thruway Authority was creditworthy enough to fund the project, budgeted at the time to cost $5 billion. But then the winning $3.1 billion bid came in. State officials say they are confident they can cover that amount by securing a federal highway loan from the Obama administration and raising enough state funds, presumably from bonds backed by increased tolls (last week, they approved an initial $500 million issue). LePatner, for his part, questions the adjusted price tag. “Those of us who know,” he says, “know you can’t do it for $3 billion.” But state officials say they have built an appropriate cushion into the budget, and note that they are protected by a new state law that shifts financial responsibility for cost overruns to the builder.
As for the old bridge, “People need to know it’s not dangerous,” says Dan Weiller, spokesman for the Thruway Authority, “though the traffic conditions can be unsafe.” LePatner is unswayed—he’ll no longer cross it. “This is as vulnerable a bridge as you can get,” he says. “It could fall at a moment’s notice.”
What follows is a breakdown of how the bridge was built—and how it’s been falling apart since.
1. A Bridge Too Far
Improbably enough, the three-mile Tappan Zee, the state’s longest bridge, spans the Hudson River at one of its widest points. Governor Thomas Dewey proposed the site during his 1950 reelection bid. The Port Authority wanted to build a toll bridge at a narrower (read: cheaper and less complicated) juncture a few miles south; Dewey’s location had the advantage of sitting just beyond the Port Authority’s jurisdiction.
2. Cheap and Easy
Completed in just five years for a relatively inexpensive $81 million, the Tappan Zee “was one of the last bridges to arise out of a vanished American way of doing things: build stuff first, ask questions later,” wrote the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas in a 2011 City Journal essay. Gelinas says the designers built “thin and light,” using an “untested design that ‘floated’ above bedrock,” which, inconveniently, lay beneath hundreds of feet of silt, sand, and clay. Among other things, the novel technique involved using foundational elements called buoyant caissons to anchor the main span in the soft soil, yielding substantial savings but a less durable structure.
3. And Ugly, Too
The bridge’s design married a towering cantilevered truss, offering sufficient clearance for ships navigating the deep channel on the east side of the river, to a squat causeway, which crossed shallow waters to the west. One of its engineers called the result “one of the ugliest bridges in the East.”