More than 80 years after it was built, the Bayonne Bridge is about to rise again.
When the Bayonne Bridge was completed in 1931, the American Institute of Steel Construction declared the elegant span connecting New Jersey and Staten Island “the most beautiful steel bridge open to traffic in the United States.” The decision to use a single, innovative, arch-shaped truss to span the Kill Van Kull waterway was inspired in part by its beauty, said chief bridge designer Othmar H. Ammann at the dedication ceremony on Nov. 14, 1931.
“The Port Authority recognized the fact that its structures must not only be useful, but they must also conform to the aesthetic sense. This was one of the motives for the selection of an arch spanning the entire river in one sweeping graceful curve,” said Ammann, who also designed the George Washington Bridge.
Amman and his engineers constructed two giant viaducts at each end of the steel arch to ensure that the elevated roadway of the Bayonne Bridge would be suspended 150 feet above the water, providing clearance for the U.S. Navy’s tallest ships in the 1930s. Despite its challenging design, the bridge was completed in less than three years at a cost of $13 million.
The Bayonne Bridge was the world’s longest steel-arch bridge for 45 years. At 1,675 feet, the arch was more than twice as long as the previous record-holder, the Hell Gate Railroad Bridge in New York City. A sister bridge of the same design, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, was built in Australia but somehow ended up 25 inches shorter than its relative in NJ,
At the Bayonne Bridge dedication ceremony, representatives from the Sydney Harbour Bridge Commission participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony where a pair of custom-made golden scissors was used. Four months later, a delegation from New York and New Jersey participated in the ribbon cutting for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The same pair of scissors was used, and following the ceremony, it was taken apart and each bridge authority carried away a golden blade.
In 1977, the 1,700-foot arch of West Virginia’s New River Gorge Bridge finally wrested the steel-arch length record from Bayonne.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the Bayonne Bridge, is in the process of commencing an ambitious $1-billion project to raise the bridge roadway by an additional 65 feet. The added height is needed to accommodate huge container ships traveling from an expanded Panama Canal to terminals in Newark, Elizabeth and Staten Island on the Kill Van Kull.
The Port Authority says the project is essential to remain competitive with other East Coast ports preparing to greet mammoth post-Panamax vessels that will be able to bring goods directly from Asia when the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2014.
The Port Authority’s last big river-crossing project, a multi-billion-dollar rail tunnel under the Hudson River, was awarded $6 billion in federal stimulus funding. The project, which would have created 6,000 construction jobs, was canceled by Gov. Chris Christie in 2010 after he decided NJ’s share of the cost was grossly underestimated.
Now, Gov. Christie, Sen. Frank Lautenberg and other elected leaders in New York and New Jersey are on the same page backing the Bayonne project. The roadway-raising also has received fast-track status from the Obama administration, promising a speedy green light for required regulatory approvals from the federal EPA, Highway Administration and U.S. Coast Guard.
But not everyone in the neighborhood is prepared to cross that bridge.
According to a report in NJ’s largest newspaper, the Star-Ledger, a coalition of environmental and community leaders has been joined by the Teamsters union in an effort to slow down the Bayonne Bridge project until a variety of concerns are met to their satisfaction. The group, calling itself the Coalition for Healthy Ports, is threatening legal action.
“We will not hesitate to sue,” coalition member Amy Goldsmith, state director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, told the Ledger.
The Ledger reports that the healthy ports coalition believes increased volume in container traffic facilitated by the bridge roadway raising will “worsen pollution in some disadvantaged neighborhoods in Essex and Union counties” as trucks carry containers between shipping terminals and distribution centers to the north, south and west.
The coalition has engaged the services of an environmental law firm to flag any procedural violations in the fast-tracked permitting. The coalition also wants the Port Authority to devise a truck-replacement program to offset increased costs for financially struggling independent truckers required to meet tougher federal pollution standards.
The Coalition for Healthy Ports includes the Newark-based Ironbound Community Corporation, the Alliance for a Greater New York and the Teamsters, which has been waging a campaign to organize independent port truckers. The coalition’s new legal partner is the Newark-based Eastern Environmental Law Center.
Coalition members also joined the state Sierra Club’s director, Jeff Tittel, in expressing concern that fast-tracking would result in a “shoddy” environmental review.
The Port Authority has issued a statement saying it would “zealously fight” to protect jobs at the port and the environment that surrounds it. Nearly 300,000 people are employed by the Port of NY/NJ, one of the nation’s busiest, generating about $2 billion annually in economic activity.
“Our ‘Raise the Roadway’ project and our Clean Trucks Program strike the right balance in protecting jobs and continuing our extensive, ongoing efforts to be good environmental stewards,” the Port Authority statement said.
No doubt they intend to raise the bridge as planned, and no, they don’t plan to lower the tolls.