The George Washington Bridge nightmare and how we got here

February 26, 2019

John Bendel

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The George Washington Bridge is America’s worst traffic choke point, according to the ATA’s American Transportation Institute. The problem has been building slowly but steadily for decades. Now it’s bad. Real bad.

And it’s not going to get any better.

The GWB opened with six traffic lanes in 1931. Two additional lanes opened in 1946. A six-lane lower deck, affectionately known as the Martha Washington, opened in 1962. I watched that being built. Seeing people working 212 feet above the Hudson was an uncomfortable spectacle.

Anyhow, that made for 14 traffic lanes – seven eastbound and seven westbound. That was the last major capacity upgrade to the bridge, where traffic has increased slowly and steadily for almost 60 years.

The GWB is by far the most important Hudson River crossing and in the running for the most important river crossing in America. It carries I-95 over the Hudson River, linking New York City, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine on its east side to virtually every place else in America. It’s difficult to overstate the strategic importance of the GWB.

In 1962, 40.5 million vehicles crossed the GWB. In 2017, the most recent reported year, and on the same 14 lanes, that number was 103 million. That makes the GWB the busiest bridge on the planet. Earth, in case you were wondering. The two decks and those 14 lanes simply can’t handle it anymore. Delays can sometimes be measured in hours.

Port Authority numbers do not report statistics for the upper and lower decks separately. Too bad. Because in 2001, their traffic loads changed. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, trucks were banned from the lower deck to mitigate the destruction that could be caused by, say, a truck bomb.

On the more confined lower deck, a bomb could do far more damage than on the upper deck. So 13-foot, 6-inch trucks that had used the lower deck were diverted upstairs, swelling traffic on the upper deck. Now instead of 14 available lanes, trucks were squeezed into eight, a reduction of more than 30 percent.

At the same time and for the same reasons, serious trucks were prohibited from the other two Hudson crossings to Manhattan – the Holland and Lincoln tunnels. If you pulled a 13.6-inch high, 102-inch wide trailer, you weren’t using those crossings anyway. But lots of other trucks were. Local delivery trucks and trailers, many only slightly smaller, were forced onto the GWB. They had no other choice. If you consider all the LTL, retail, and food supply trucks that serve the island of Manhattan, we’re talking about thousands of trucks every day, all headed for the upper deck of the GWB.

Yes, the Tappan Zee Bridge, which carries I-87 and I-287 across the Hudson 20 miles to the north of the GWB, is an alternative, but you can’t simply drive 20 miles from the GWB. Not any more. For decades you could make your way to U.S. 9W that ran along the west side of the Hudson directly to the Tappan Zee. Lots of trucks did. As an LTL driver in the 1960s and 1970s, I had to cross the Hudson every day. Route 9W was a frequent escape valve from GWB delays.

But as GWB traffic continued to worsen, too many trucks were using 9W for the comfort of nearby residents. In 1978, under political pressure from a relative handful of people, the state of New York kicked trucks off 9W. The nearest alternative from northbound I-95 was N.J. Route 17 from the New Jersey Turnpike north to the New York State Thruway and finally the Tappan Zee. “Using Route 17 is crazy,” an owner operator said at the time. “That’s 57 miles out of the way and an extra 14 or 15 gallons of fuel.”

So that’s where we stand. You can spend miles, time, and fuel to take an alternate route or you can gamble on possible delays at the GWB as you and your fellow truckers are funneled onto the upper deck. It’s a crappy choice. But you know that already.

Despite the GWB bottleneck – a logistic problem on a national scale – there is no discussion of another bridge or tunnel to ease congestion. But don’t despair. As part of a current maintenance project, the Port Authority is spending $90 million to add dedicated bicycle lanes.

Oh, one more thing. They demolished the steel truss Tappan Zee Bridge from 1949, replaced it with one of those wire things, and renamed it the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. They call it a “twin cable-stayed bridge.”

Please join me in continuing to call it the Tappan Zee. According to Wikipedia, “Tappan” was a small regional Native American tribe and “Zee” is Dutch for sea – a reference to the wide Hudson.

Nothing against the former New York governor, but there has never been a cooler name for a bridge than the Tappan Zee.

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.

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