September 3, 2014

Talking Transportation: The George Washington Bridge

The George Washington bridge is the busiest vehicular traffic bridge in the world.

The George Washington bridge is the busiest vehicular traffic bridge in the world.

We’ve read a lot about the George Washington Bridge (GWB) in recent weeks.  And the scandal over who ordered closure of approach lanes from Fort Lee, N.J., only underscores how crucial this bridge is to the entire region.  All of which got me thinking about the GWB and its history.

Surprisingly, the GWB was not the first bridge design to cross the Hudson River.  As early as 1885, there were discussions of building a suspension bridge to bring the Pennsylvania Railroad into Manhattan at about 23rdSt.  A later design in the 1920’s foresaw a double deck, 16-lane-wide roadway (with 12 tracks for railroad trains on the lower level) at 57th Street.

But it was in 1927 that work began on the GWB much farther uptown at 179th Street.  The $75 million single-level bridge carrying six lanes of traffic opened in 1931 and was widened by two lanes in 1946.

Originally the bridge was going to be called The Bi-State Bridge, The Bridge of Prosperity or The Gate of Paradise (really!), but it was a campaign by school kids that ended up honoring our first President.

The original designers had planned for the future and, in 1961, the lower level, six-lane “Martha Washington” bridge opened to traffic, increasing total capacity by 75%.

Because we usually approach the bridge from the east or west, it’s hard to appreciate its enormity until you’re right on the structure.  But from any angle it’s a beautiful bridge, showing its bare criss-cross girders and bracing, which were originally to have been clad in concrete and granite.

The GWB is recognized by civil engineers and architects alike as one of the most beautiful in the world.

In its first year of operation the bridge carried five million vehicles.  Last year it carried 102 million.  On opening day, the toll was 50 cents each way.  Today the one-way toll for autos (only collected eastbound) ranges from $9 (EZ Pass off-peak) to $13 (cash).  But pedestrians can still walk across for free (when the sidewalk is open).

Those walkways, while affording a wonderful view of the city, also have a dark side as the GWB was scene of a record 18 suicides (and 43 attempts) in 2012.

On an average weekday, 17,000 bus passengers rely on the GWB’s own bus terminal built atop the Trans-Manhattan Expressway (not the Cross Bronx) on the Manhattan side.  There they can catch the A train or the Seventh Avenue IRT.  The bus station is undergoing a $180 million renovation.

The bridge itself is a living thing.  It creaks and groans, moves and sways and it needs constant maintenance.  In 2011, the Port Authority announced an eight-year, $1 billion project to replace the bridge’s 529 vertical suspender wire ropes.  In addition, lanes on the upper level are being closed (at night) to replace steel plates on the road surface.

All of which means more jobs and, eventually, higher tolls.

Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He was a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council for 19 years and still serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at Jim@MediaTrainer.tv