Aging New York bridge heavily traveled while future is pondered

News AASHTO Journal January 30, 2006
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State officials in New York are reviewing their options to address the question of what to do with the Tappan Zee Bridge, a critical crossing of the Hudson River connecting Tarrytown, N.Y., with the town of Nyack. Although the bridge has reached the close of its design life—and has cracks and rust to show for it—final decisions about steps to take may be two years away, and replacing the bridge could require eight more years and as much as $14.5 billion, the New York Times reported.

Although the Tappan Zee is not even half as old as its famous nearby cousin the Brooklyn Bridge, it was built with a service life of 50 years, and as of last month passed that milestone each day. The New York State Thruway Authority, which owns the 3.1-mile-long bridge, says its deck, some structural steel, its concrete walkway and electrical systems have “deteriorated significantly.”

The Thruway Authority plans to spend more than $100 million next year to keep the bridge functioning and replace some corroded steel.

Commuter Brett Ruskin, who uses the bridge daily in his commute to work said, “The big problem with the Tappan Zee Bridge is it’s falling apart. Every morning I go out there and I prey. I say, “Please God, don’t let the bridge come down today. Let me get across it first.’”

But Michael Anderson, the Transportation Department official who was installed as the team leader for the review, said while decisions are underway, the current bridge remains safe “and will be safe for the foreseeable future.”

New York Gov. George Pataki, who first proposed replacing the Tappan Zee in 1999, has said he will urge a strong role for the private sector in proposals to repair or replace the aging bridge. Legislation may be needed to put that forward in the fashion he has proposed.

The Tappan Zee, which cost $81 million to build, wasn’t built to last according to Ramesh Mehta, the divisional director of the Thruway Authority in charge of the southern Hudson Valley. At the time it was built, the Korean War was underway and there was financial pressure to spend funds on items other than infrastructure, he said.

Talks among the Thruway Authority, the New York Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Metro-North Railroad got hung up last year over the question of replacing the bridge with a tunnel that could also carry commuter trains, the Times reported.

Pataki then put the New York DOT in charge of the review process, and since then the three agencies have come up with a range of half a dozen alternatives, two involving maintaining the existing bridge and four calling for new infrastructure. The four latter proposals all would incorporate mass transit; planners have ruled out a tunnel due to cost and environmental considerations.

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