George Washington Bridge improvements show what’s wrong all over

April 20, 2022

John Bendel

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The George Washington Bridge, where I-95 crosses the Hudson River, is getting some heavy maintenance. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is spending $2 billion on the bridge.

But all that money is just for maintenance and some upgrades. It won’t increase the capacity of the bridge at all. There will be no more lanes for additional traffic across the Hudson even though the bridge reached its capacity decades ago.

Yes, I’ve written about the George Washington Bridge before. Bear with me one more time, and I promise not to do it again.

The thing is, I love the giant web of steel across the Hudson between Fort Lee, N.J., and Upper Manhattan. My very fondest childhood memory is of hot, sleepless summer nights in the 1950s when Uncle Charlie drove the family down Henry Hudson Drive just under the bridge to the Ross Dock Picnic Area, though it wasn’t named that at the time. It was always cooler there by the bridge. Later, when I lived in Fort Lee, I walked the bridge often. Working as an LTL driver, I drove across hundreds of times.

The George Washington Bridge is a beautiful, mighty structure with stunning views. Still, most interstate drivers hate having to cross it. Eastbound, there’s often a long wait to reach the toll booths on the upper deck. Westbound, there are predictable jams on the Cross Bronx Expressway (I-95) and the Major Deegan (I-87).

The George Washington Bridge opened in 1932 and turns 90 this year. The last time lanes were added was in 1962, when John F. Kennedy was in the White House. That was 10 presidents and 60 years ago. From then until now, GWB traffic has grown by 250%. The number of lanes has not changed.

For much of its length, the Hudson River separates New England’s 15 million people from the rest of the country. While eight bridges span the Hudson from New York City to Albany, only two others carry interstate truck traffic. The George Washington Bridge carries almost as much traffic as those two and the other five combined – a colossal quarter-million vehicles a day. It is the busiest bridge on Earth and arguably the most vital 1.6 miles of highway in the U.S. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the George Washington Bridge to commerce in the Northeast.

So there must be plans to relieve George, right?

Maybe a new belt highway and bridge across the Hudson farther north. Maybe a tunnel. The Federal Highway Administration would have a strategic view of things, right?

I asked. My emailed question was: Are there any plans for, studies on, or discussions of additional vehicle lanes on the I-95 corridor over the Hudson River?

Maybe there are. Maybe the top feds have ideas they still haven’t shared with their public affairs office. Or maybe I just didn’t ask the right question. In any case, the Federal Highway Administration deftly handed me off to the Port Authority.

“They are the owner (of the GWB) and would need to speak to any plans that might be under discussion at the local level,” the agency’s media rep replied to my emailed question.

So much for big-picture strategy.

If my question simply bounced off the FHWA, it seemed like a total surprise to the Port Authority.

“Do you mean additional lanes, expanding the bridge itself, reworking bridge access, or something different?” their media rep asked in an email.

All of the above, I wrote back.

The media rep didn’t answer right away. I think he passed on my email for help with a reply. According to my tracking software, the email with my question was opened more than 30 more times.

The Port Authority rep emailed back a couple of days later noting the swell things the agency is doing to move traffic along.

“One of the things that we’re doing to ease traffic flow, improve capacity and make it a better GWB experience for truckers (and all drivers, of course), is our ‘Restoring the George’ project, a nearly $2 billion investment in getting the bridge ready for the next 100 years of its life,” the rep wrote.

But he didn’t answer my question.

The Highway Administration and Port Authority reps I dealt with were polite and professional. Nonanswer answers are not uncommon in public affairs. Even so, I came away feeling as though I had just asked a really stupid question.

But was it really?

I get it. Adding highway capacity in or near New York City would cost far too much money to be practical. And there are folks who would challenge any such project at each and every opportunity, tying up work for years.

It’s simply impossible. If there were such a thing as an official attitude toward George Washington Bridge relief, that would be it.

Sadly, the situation at the George Washington Bridge is also true for the larger interstate system.

The interstate roadways and bridges that facilitated 20th century prosperity are now congested and stressed, especially in the East. Yes, $110 billion in the recent bipartisan infrastructure law will restore them, but that’s all it will do. There will be few expansions and virtually no new roadways. While the U.S. economy will continue to grow, our road system built in the 1960s for the traffic of the 1990s will not.

I’m grateful that Congress was finally able to pass infrastructure funding. I’m grateful the Port Authority is plowing $2 billion back into the big bridge. But these are both holding actions. In the case of the interstate highways, they’re paying a long overdue bill for deferred maintenance. That’s good. But they’re not building for the future.

Why not?

America produces more than enough wealth to build what we’ll need as the country continues to grow. But applying that wealth to big public works is a challenge that involves controversial political questions. We just barely marshalled the votes for the Bipartisan Infrastructure package. Even though good transportation generates efficiency and economic growth, massive new public-works funding appears out of the question for the George Washington Bridge as well as the interstates, at least for now.

Then there are the dedicated crusaders against any highway project. Many are residents who fight anything in or near their neighborhood. Others believe the interstate system spoiled America with suburban sprawl and urban freeways. They can be counted on to oppose roadway projects anywhere, but particularly in dense urban areas like New York City.

Can these problems be overcome?

Maybe someday we’ll muster the necessary political will and civic imagination.

Just not any time soon. LL

TBS

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.