Engineering New York

The eastbound main span will soon connect to the Westchester approach. (Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

By Ilene Dube

The Brooklyn Bridge, an engineering marvel of its era, is considered a work of art, one that has inspired other artists from Georgia O’Keeffe to Red Grooms. As the replacement for New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge nears completion,
observers can see that it, too, is soaring with beauty and grace.

“The look of the bridge was important,” Project Director Jamey Barbas said to her alma mater, Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “We knew we wanted to have a signature structure.” As a native New Yorker, Barbas had a personal interest in creating an instantly recognizable icon.

Costing $3.98 billion, the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge is named for the three-term 52nd governor of New York, who happens to be the father of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. It was Andrew who set the project in motion, saying at the time that, after 10 years of delays, it was a sign that government can still get things done. The elder Cuomo died in 2015, knowing the project was well underway. The bridge is expected to be completed in 2018.

The first time Andrew Cuomo, a native of Queens, N.Y., heard his father use expletives, he recalled to The New York Times, was on a bridge, although not the Tappan Zee but the frequently congested Kosciuszko, itself undergoing replacement.

“The [Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge] will replace a critical piece of our crumbling infrastructure, create thousands of jobs for New Yorkers, and help continue an economic resurgence across Westchester, Rockland, and the Hudson Valley region,” the governor said when construction began in 2013.

The bridge is the first crossing to be built in the New York area on such a colossal scale since the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge linked Brooklyn to Staten Island in 1964, and is the largest bridge project in New York state history. In addition to its hefty price tag, the bridge made news a year ago when one of its cranes collapsed. In what was termed a miracle, no lives were lost. Sadly such miracles were not available during construction of the Brooklyn, Verrazano-Narrows, and original Tappan Zee bridges, when 20, three, and one person, respectively, perished.

The first span is scheduled to open in late August, and the new bridge is on schedule to fully open to traffic in 2018, says New NY Bridge Project Director of Communications Khurram Saeed. Still to come: A one-and-a-half-inch coating of state-of-the-art asphalt, LED lighting poles, digital message signs, and stainless steel fencing to deter jumpers. Saeed points out that 220 million pounds of American steel is being used to build the new bridge.

The project team tests the westbound bridge’s aesthetic lighting system.

The Tappan Zee is the longest and most complex crossing in the New York State Thruway system, serving as a vital artery for residents, commuters, travelers, and commercial traffic. The name Tappan Zee combines a reference to the Tappan tribe of indigenous Americans, and the Dutch word for sea. Opened in 1955, it was designed to support 100,000 vehicles a day, but current traffic exceeds 140,000 a day.

In addition, narrow lanes and the lack of emergency shoulders create unsafe driving conditions and, as a result, the bridge has twice the average accident rate per mile as the rest of the 570-mile New York Thruway system, according to the website of the New York State Thruway Authority, which owns the bridge. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to maintain the structure, and it is estimated that the cost of maintaining the Tappan Zee rivaled the cost of a new bridge, while offering no improvements to current traffic conditions.

Plans for a new bridge to replace the Tappan Zee were first discussed in 1999, and over the following decade, $88 million taxpayer dollars were spent, 430 meetings were held, and 150 concepts were considered—yet still, the project did not move forward. Under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s leadership and with the support of President Obama and the U.S. Department of Transportation, the project moved from dysfunction to construction.

“This community has been waiting for a new bridge to replace the Tappan Zee for more than 20 years,” said Chief Operating Engineer Christopher Horton, who was born, raised, and continues to live in the Peekskill/Mt. Kisco area. “Governor Cuomo and President Obama were able to accomplish more in three-and-a-half years than anyone else in the last two decades, breaking through the gridlock to give a renewed sense of pride to the community.”  He calls it more than building a bridge, but a monument to the state’s innovation and the nation’s determination.

The new bridge is designed to last 100 years before requiring major structural maintenance. To satisfy Cuomo’s requirement that the bridge be aesthetically pleasing, artist Jeff Koons and architect Richard Meier, among others, served on the design panel. Not only is the bridge a work of beauty, but the views from it are among the most magnificent in the world.

Its environmental impact is intended to be minimized; the new bridge incorporates a bubble curtain to absorb sound-pressure waves that might otherwise kill Atlantic sturgeon and other fish. In consideration of the rich and diverse wildlife that make the region its home, the bridge team has used equipment requiring less dredging, smaller pilings, use of clean fuel technology, and also sought to minimize construction noise. Tappan Zee Constructors has installed environmental monitoring stations at various locations to continuously measure noise, air quality, and vibration levels.

Peregrine falcons—the fastest members of the animal kingdom—nest in a human-made box atop the Tappan Zee. The high vantage point allows the endangered birds the ability to scour and dive for prey. Monitored by the New York State Thruway Authority, the nest box will be moved to the towers of the new bridge. Falcons generally establish a nest in February to raise their young before migrating south in the fall. A webcam allows viewers to observe the migratory falcons incubating eggs, feeding their young, and defending their nest (NewNYBridge.com/falcon-camera).

Although a single bridge, there are two parallel crossings, taking vehicles in each direction between Westchester and Rockland counties. With one span now operational, another crossing 87 feet wide will open next year, with four lanes in each direction as well as a separate bicycle and pedestrian path. There will be transparent noise panels at either end of the path.

“River Crossing” – The fourth of six belvederes, across the pedestrian and bike path. It’s design highlights transportation and communication. 

The cable-stayed bridge will ultimately offer eight 12-foot vehicular lanes and have six belvederes for pedestrians and cyclists, each with specially-designed seating, shade structures, and interpretive panels on Hudson River history.

A cable-stayed bridge is one in which the cables “stay” the bridge in place, by connecting from the edge of the deck to the angled towers to better distribute the structural load. The Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge is the widest cable-stayed structure of its kind in the world, and will include state-of-the-art traffic monitoring systems as well as enhanced express bus service. Mass-transit ready, the new crossing will be able to accommodate bus rapid transit, light rail, or commuter rail.

Building such an enormous structure would not be possible without the I Lift NY crane. The floating crane has a lifting arm that is taller than a 30-story building and is capable of lifting the equivalent of 12 Statues of Liberty at once. It enables pre-fabrication of huge sections of the bridge off site, saving both time and money as well as enhancing project safety and quality. The super crane previously worked on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge project.

What will become of the old Tappan Zee? It will not transform into another elevated park, like the High Line or the Walkway Over the Hudson, further up, converted from an old railroad bridge, but will be carefully dismantled using the I Lift NY super crane. It is in the way of the second span, and once traffic has shifted to the first of the twin spans, the Tappan Zee will come down.

But the structure’s elements will live on, according to Saeed. The steel and concrete deck panels will be repurposed or recycled. Its 133 deck panel units and moveable barriers will be transferred to state and local municipalities. “The transfer of these materials will save local municipalities millions of dollars which will help important infrastructure projects move forward with a much lower cost to local counties and towns,” says NYSTA Acting Executive Director Bill Finch. Eight municipalities and the New York State Department of Transportation have requested the transfer of deck panels, which can facilitate future infrastructure projects. Including removal and delivery, the deck panel units have an estimated value of almost $3 million.

The toll for the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge will remain at $5 cash, or $4.75 E-ZPass through 2020, according to Saeed.

After a season that was termed “Summer of Hell” because of stalled infrastructure improvements at Penn Station, the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge is a bright spot.