The Politics That Built—And Almost Destroyed—The Tappan Zee

“A bridge has no allegiance to either side,” writer and artist Les Coleman famously observed. For a neutral edifice of concrete, steel, and timber, however, the Tappan Zee Bridge has staged a Shakespearean high-drama of politics and power.

A crown jewel of the Eisenhower interstate system, the Hudson’s cantilever crossing is as symbolic of the 1950s as Leave It to Beaver or Norman Rockwell. A bridge to connect Rockland County and upstate New York with Westchester and Southern New England was first suggested during the Roaring Twenties. At the time, the only way to traverse the counties was a 30-minute ferry ride. 

Local officials saw big money in the project, although the proposals were soon shelved by the Great Depression. Building across a three-mile stretch of 50-foot-deep water would be financially and commercially difficult, and, as the mayor of South Nyack railed in a public meeting, it would upend the peaceful villages dotting the shore.

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The Tappan Zee

By the Numbers

$88 million: amount spent on 
design studies

 

16,013 ft: total length

 

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138 ft: maximum clearance
above water

 

25 miles from Manhattan

 

42,702 cubic yards of concrete

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303 miles of timber piles

 

293 ft: height of two towers

The plans took a turn after World War II. New families in New York faced a housing shortage, and the barely dry New York State Thruway now linked all of New York’s major cities. The far reaches of Rockland and Westchester were for the first time within commuting distance of Manhattan. New York Governor Thomas Dewey reopened the bridge project.

An original plan chose the narrow between Dobbs Ferry and Piermont for construction. But Governor Dewey had his eye on federal grant money, and the recommended location fell within the Port Authority’s 25-mile jurisdiction around the Statue of Liberty. 

Governor Dewey—a gangbusting go-getter and future presidential candidate—didn’t want the Port Authority to capture the funding. His solution: He marked a spot two-tenths of a mile north of the Port Authority’s jurisdiction at one of the Hudson’s widest points.

The width of the Hudson at Dewey’s chosen spot was the first of many challenges for the newfangled bridge. The riverbed was not only wide but also caked in layers of silt, which made it difficult to install the caissons that would support the nearly 16,013-foot bridge. Local towns once again protested. Materials and money were still scarce, and the total budget had reached $81 million.

While planners assumed traffic would emanate from New York City, in reality, the mostly one-passenger cars were headed between counties. More families moved to and worked in the suburbs, creating mini-cities around New York. The Platinum Mile in Westchester, The Palisades Center mall in Rockland, and other economic powerhouses popped up around the bridge.

The quick rise in congestion strained sewage and water systems. The seven lanes were built to carry 100,000 vehicles, but heavy traffic drew 40 percent more cars and trucks than estimates had predicted. The Tappan Zee soon racked up twice the accident rate of greater thruway systems, with pieces of the bridge regularly breaking off as metal corroded under stress.

In 2000, the state launched an examination to figure out how to shore up the bridge and ease congestion. The report found that quick safety fixes were needed, though rebuilding the existing bridge would be expensive and inefficient. 

The nearly $4 billion to fund a new bridge would come in part from bonds and subsidies. A planned increase in tolls—which has angered some residents—would make up the rest. Right now, in the absence of an east-west rail alternative, the Tappan Zee’s toll is roughly a third of what other bridges charge.

In 2013, Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy organization, threatened to sue over bad dredging, endangered species, and misappropriated Clean Water Act State Revolving Funds. Many urban planners fear that “induced demand”—where adding more supply increases demand—will cause more traffic.  

Despite the ongoing controversy, this September marked the halfway point to completion for the new Tappan Zee. Its name has not been decided, but for drama-lovers, the tale (and the controversy) continues. 

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