New York City’s Kosciuszko Bridge Gets an $850 Million Makeover

It's a vital link in the city's highway system. It's also just one piece of a crumbling network.

Kosciuszko Bridge
DOT

America's traffic infrastructure has fallen into a multi-trillion-dollar state of disrepair. This summer, The Drive investigates how America's crumbling roads, bridges, and tunnels were allowed to decay, and how we can begin fixing them. Last time, we looked at the Gowanus Expressway. In this installment, we move a few miles north, to the Kosciuszko Bridge.

The 77-year-old Kosciuszko Bridge, the main Interstate highway link between the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts in New York City, is in rough shape. Every day, more than 160,000 cars and trucks rumble across its broken asphalt and exposed steel decking, over a steep archway that, at its apex, rises 125 feet above the Superfund-designated Newtown Creek, below. Daily congestion in both directions is monumental; in the case of even a minor accident or a breakdown, traffic grinds to a rage-inducing crawl.

Fortunately, the New York State Department of Transportation is already well on its way toward replacing the antiquated steel truss—and not just with another single bridge, but with a conjoined twin span. The agency told The Drive that the Kosciuszko project is the largest single contract in NYSDOT history; a sum of $555 million has been allocated for the first phase, which encompasses the removal of the old span and the construction of the first replacement, while the second-phase construction of the twin span carries a cost estimate of $250 to $300 million.

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"It takes a lot of effort to keep the bridge safe, and at some point, you need to replace the structure," said Diane Park, a spokeswoman for the state DOT, during an interview. Park added that lane closures from repair operations have only exacerbated congestion. "While we're replacing it, we're making operational improvements as well."

Like so much of America's aging highway infrastructure, the Kosciuszko Bridge is the product of another era. When the bridge opened in 1939, highway lanes had yet to be set to the now-standard width of 12 feet; road shoulders weren't mandatory; and tall naval vessels regularly sailed up and down Newtown Creek, requiring a steep approach from the highways on either side of the waterway to the bridge's center section.

Times have changed, as have the requirements for a bridge across Newtown Creek. Every day, tens of thousands of heavily-laden trucks traverse the bridge's steep grade, stumbling over the rough patchwork of repaired asphalt and struggling to regain highway speeds after traffic inevitably slows. The Newtown Creek navy yard, once home to rows of warships, has transitioned to commercial uses like production studios and a commercial farms; since the tall bridge is no longer necessary, the new span will sit 35 feet lower.

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The Queens-bound first-phase roadway will feature five 12-foot-wide lanes, and at last includes shoulders. Those five lanes will need to support traffic in both directions as the second span is under construction. The "H"-shaped concrete towers anchoring the cable stays that will support the bridge are nearly 250 feet tall, and can already be seen from across the East River, in Manhattan. The Brooklyn-bound second-phase roadway will have four traffic lanes, a shoulder, and a 20-foot-wide boulevard for cyclists and pedestrians. All told, the new bridge has been designed for a 100-year lifespan—good news for the estimated 9 million people that are predicted to live in New York City by 2040.

Renderings of the cable suspension design suggest the bridge will be a breathtaking structure, of a kind not built in New York City since the Verrazano-Narrows bridge was completed in 1964. It's a sign of the times, a physical manifestation of the city's economic prosperity following more than one million new residents over the last quarter century.

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The new Kosciuszko Bridge will go a long way towards easing congestion along I-278, but it's just one project amongst a myriad of necessary upgrades and new construction. On the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, the dilapidated, 84-year-old Pulaski Skyway is currently undergoing a $1 billion rehabilitation, but is running behind schedule, and approaches to the Lincoln Tunnel are a mess. In New York, the Brooklyn Bridge has been under continuous construction for years, and the Queens terminus of the Long Island Expressway has become more of a rush-hour parking lot than a highway. With all those areas—and countless more—in desperate need of improvements in New York City alone, how do city, state, and federal agencies prioritize which sections receive immediate attention?

"What needs to be fixed is what's being fixed now," Parks said, noting that the Koscuiszko and another bridge project on the Major Deegan Expressway, in the Bronx, are the most obvious examples. Currently, the state DOT's website lists 30 projects marked "in development," "future development," or "under construction." Projects described as "preventative and corrective maintenance" and "regional bridge washing," as well as bridge re-decking and spot repair, dominate the list.

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"It's a process of looking at where the greatest need is," Parks said, "but it always comes back to priorities and funding."

To understand the decision-making process behind improvements to the regional highway system, The Drive reached out to New York City council member Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents northern Manhattan and serves as chair of the city's transportation committee. We waited two hours before being admitted to his corner office, which affords sweeping views of City Hall and the East River bridges, for our scheduled appointment. Although we asked several times which areas of the city's highway system Rodriguez believed need the most attention, seemed hesitant to provide a straight answer.

After speaking for a time about his office's efforts to support Car Free NYC, an Earth Day program designed to inspire discussion about re-thinking street use, Rodriguez did offer that the Franklin D. Roosevelt East River Drive, a notoriously bumpy stretch of highway running along Manhattan's east side, was on the city's radar. Rodriguez said that he drives to work on that pockmarked roadway about four times per week, and knows firsthand that improvements are needed. He also pointed us, in our search for a systemic view of highway system improvements, to Vision Zero, a city program aimed at reducing vehicle-caused pedestrian fatalities; this was an answer, of sorts, but not to the questions we were asking.

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Funding, as Parks noted, is the crux of all development decisions. The Kosciuszko Bridge project is funded by money from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New York Works Program, which will siphon $77 million project dollars into local businesses. For its part, the FHWA merely provides money to each state for highway repairs and improvements—the amount of money allotted is determined by members of Congress at the committee level—while the states themselves manage the work. According to a federal official who requested anonymity, that allotment process is an intensely political game, but designed to divvy up the money equitably, according to need.

In other words, it all comes down to money, which is determined by policy, which is affected by votes, which tend to be cast with the hopes of solving the immediate headaches taxpayers experience on a daily basis. Infrastructure projects—anywhere, but especially in a place like New York City—are massively expensive, can take years to complete, and tend to create further complications by the very nature of their undertaking. And yet, as we see with the Kosciuszko Bridge build, they are also extremely necessary for the long-term health of a city. To quote our anonymous official speaking on the challenges involved in making infrastructure issues appealing to voters: "We have to find a way to make infrastructure sexy. It's a difficult thing to do."