Monday, August 29, 2011

Bridge of the Week #68: Robert F. Kennedy Bridge

This is the biggest, badassest bridge of them all: the Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Bridge. And yes, it makes my skin crawl to call it that, but that’s its official name now. For decades it was the Triborough Bridge but in 2008 it was renamed for that guy at the family’s request. For some reason, New Yorkers really seem to bend over backwards (or forwards) for that family. But that’s another story. On to the bridge.

The Triborough (from now on I will call it that) is definitely the biggest bridge in the city, mainly because it is three bridges in one: one from Manhattan to Randall’s Island, one from Bronx to Randall’s Island and one from Queens to Wards Island, all connected by viaducts and overpasses (one of which actually used to be a fourth bridge over Little Hell Gate from Randall’s Island to Wards Island, but the two islands were joined by landfill in the 1930s, so now that section is just a viaduct – and with no pedestrian element.) The vehicles therefore don’t have to go down onto land on Wards or Randall’s Island (unless they take that exit). But for pedestrians and cyclists they are separate bridges and you have to go down to the ground between each leg, which is a nice thing because Wards Island and Randall’s Island include some nice parkland and are nice places to run in their own right.

This leg crosses Bronx Kill, which is a quite narrow and shallow waterway, one that could probably be walked across without drowning, and which can support watercraft probably no larger than kayaks. The bulk of the distance of the span is actually across industrial areas in the Bronx. There are two entrances on the Bronx side, on the east and west side of the bridge at Cypress and 133 St. If coming from the west, note that Bruckner Blvd. sits where 133 St. would be, until it veers off to the north a couple blocks west of the bridge entrance, so your approach would be from Bruckner Blvd. The east entrance has a stairway and the west entrance has a switchback-type ramp system to get up to road level. The two walkways join just before descending onto Randall’s Island. The entrance on Randall’s Island is on the north side of the island just off the main road, between the baseball fields. It’s not hard to find.

The bridge is a steel truss bridge with a main span of 383 feet and a length anchorage to anchorage of 1,600 feet. It has a clearance of 55 feet above water. It carries four lanes of traffic in each direction. For motorized traffic, the bridge leads in the Bronx directly to the junction of the Major Deegan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway.

Of the three bridges, this is the only drawbridge, a lift bridge. This also has sidewalks on both the north and south sides. The Manhattan entrances are at the northeast corner of 124 St. and 2nd Ave., and at the southeast corner of 126 St. and 2nd Ave. The Randall’s Island entrances are a little harder to find. They can both be reached from a north-south maintenance road between the main road on the north side of the island, west of the Bronx span, and the north fence of the golf driving range. Once you get to this maintenance road there are signs, but they are easy to overlook. The north entrance is on the east side of the road inside the covered section of the roadway under the bridge. The south entrance faces the fence on the north side of the golf driving range, a few yards north of the maintenance road.

The length of the main lift span is 310 feet, with an anchorage to anchorage length of 770 feet. When lowered, the bridge has a clearance of 55 feet, and when raised, 135 feet. It carries three lanes of traffic in each direction. Cars can get on the bridge in Manhattan on the streets at 125 St. and 2nd Ave. or from the FDR Drive on the south or the Harlem River Drive on the north.

This bridge is easily the largest and most impressive of the three. It’s also the one that is likely to bring out the acrophobe in you. In my opinion it’s actually the most intimidating of any bridge in the city, due I believe to the relatively low surrounding landscape (which also gives you an incredible view), the height of the sidewalk above the roadway, and the relatively low railing between the towers once the higher chain-link fence stops. Only the sidewalk on the north side is open for pedestrians. It seems that the south sidewalk hasn’t been open for quite a few years. As near as I can tell, the Queens approach was taken down in the early 2000’s and the Wards Island/Randall’s Island approach some time before that. For the open north walk, the entrance in Queens is at 27 St. and Hoyt Ave., and the Wards Island entrance is not hard to find, on the main north-south road near the entrance to the psychiatric center. You can take a ramp up the entire way or use a staircase which meets the ramp partway up a little to the south. Until a few years ago, the walkway followed the roadway quite a ways farther along and descended to Randall’s Island north of the parking facilities. The beginning of that entrance is still there, closed off, but most of that unused walkway has been taken down. The new entrance is nice because it’s much closer to the ballfields on Wards Island, and the roads around them which provide some nice running.

The main span of this suspension bridge is 1,380 feet, with an anchorage to anchorage length of 2,780 feet. The clearance above water at the center of the span is 143 feet. The towers are 315 feet tall. The roadway carries four lanes of traffic in each direction, connecting in Queens to the Grand Central Parkway and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

The idea bridge connecting Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens had been floating around for quite some time, to relieve congestion on the Queensboro Bridge, which was at the time the best way to get from the Bronx, upstate or New England to Queens or Long Island by car (this was long before the Bronx-Whitestone and Throg's Neck Bridges), until finally a concrete (so to speak) plan was proposed by Edward A. Byrne, chief engineer of the New York City Department of Plant and Structures in 1916. The city authorized funding for surveys, test borings and structural plans in 1925. Ground was broken by Mayor Jimmy Walker on Friday, October 25, 1929, one day after "Black Thursday." The five million dollars and change initially authorized was spent on condemnation of buildings, attorneys' fees and a few piers on Wards Island. In early 1930 the city appeared to abandon the project.

This is a good time to mention a few possibilities for the bridge that never happened. Engineer Gustav Lindenthal, designer of the beautiful Hell Gate Bridge, a railroad bridge from the Bronx across Randall's and Wards Islands and to Queens, didn't want a suspension bridge across Hell Gate close to his bridge to detract from its beauty. He proposed simply adding a second deck to his railroad bridge for motor vehicles, with spurs to Manhattan at 102 St. and 116 St. This proposal was not accepted, although the Queens suspension span plan was moved further south to give a little more distance from the Hell Gate Bridge. People today are so familiar with the bridge as it is, that they might not realize the clear logic of placing the Manhattan leg at 103 St., directly across from the Queens span and a mile closer to midtown. The 125 St. site was chosen because William Randolph Hearst owned property on 125 St., which would rise in value if the city needed it for a bridge approach. And Hearst had enough political power to call the shots, even after Robert Moses took over the project.

Speaking of whom, Robert Moses, New York City Parks Commissioner, New York State Parks Commissioner, Long Island Parks Commissioner, etc., etc., in 1932 convinced Governor Al Smith to resurrect the project, because he very much wanted the bridge to bring people out to his parkways and state parks on Long Island, including the immensely popular Jones Beach, as well as Caumsett and Sunken Meadows State Parks (had to give those two a mention) without driving through Manhattan streets. Moses himself drafted the state legislation to create the Triborough Bridge Authority, the "authority" being a relatively new concept of a joint public-private partnership, whose only significant precedent was the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which had built bridge and tunnel crossings between the two states. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed Moses commissioner of the authority. The Authority would be able to issue bonds and receive state and federal money for construction, in addition to approximately $37 million from New Deal programs, but it could operate under its own rules and wouldn't have to open its books. And importantly, Moses's legislative innovation was that the money from tolls that would normally go towards paying off the bonds and debts, at which time tolls would no longer be collected, could now be spent on other projects rather than paying off the bonds for the Triborough Bridge. This allowed Moses to amass huge sums of money which could be used to build projects like the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, the Throg's Neck Bridge, the Alexander Hamilton Bridge and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, as well as numerous parkways and expressways which he defined as bridge approaches. (The reader will note that none of the crossings mentioned in the last sentence have any access for pedestrians or rail lines.) The bottom line is that the Triborough Bridge was the foundation of Moses's amassing of power. His main office was even in the foundation of the bridge, in a building on Randall's Island underneath the toll plaza.

The bridge finally opened on July 11, 1936, at a cost of $60 million, greater than the cost of the Hoover Dam, and one of the largest public works projects of the Depression. To bring traffic to and from the bridge, the East River Drive in Manhattan (currently the FDR Drive), was extended north from 96th St., and eventually would come the Major Deegan Expressway and Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx and the Grand Central Parkway in Queens.

Soon after the bridge opened, it became clear that traffic congestion was not being relieved, but exacerbated. Rather than come up with any creative or innovative solutions, or improving mass transit, Moses and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (after it took over construction of the Queens Midtown and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnels, the word "Tunnel" was added to its name) built more expressways and bridges, notably the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge and Throg's Neck Bridge, both of which passed directly from the Bronx into Queens, and neither of which relieved traffic congestion.

But that's traffic. For runners, the Triborough Bridge is a great resource, as a way to get to Randall's Island/Wards Island, to get from borough to borough, and the Queens suspension span is one of the great bridge crossings in the city.

Pictures: 1. The Bronx truss span over the Bronx Kill; 2. The Manhattan lift span over the East River; 3. The Queens suspension span over Hell Gate; 4. The pedestrian entrance in Queens; 5. The view of Queens from the Queens span; 6. The Hell Gate Bridge as seen from the Queens span.

1 comment:

  1. I've really been enjoying your bridges series, and this one is the best! I'm looking to run the Triboro soon and this write up is very helpful.