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January 20, 2014

The George Washington Bridge

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

The Bridge that never was...
Surprisingly, the George Washington Bridge 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 23rd St.  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 George Washington Bridge 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 was 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.

GWB Bus Terminal
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.


1 comment:

JusUhillbilly said...

The GWB is a grand bridge and I know about the way it sways personally. Do you recall when all lanes were closed in the 80's
I do in fact I was setting in the middle on the top level with my father and a 14'x80' mobile home.
The cause of the closure was due to a tanker getting hot and the pop-off valve opened and the emergency crews feared an explosion. I remember very well and we could not exit on 121st street due to our size so we sat with our truck. The view was remarkable and I will remember this until I die mostly due to the fact of being with my father who I lost in 2010. If you look this up there is footage from news crew I believe it was channel 5 news. Charlie from Virginia