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.

Bridge of the Week #67: Mill Basin Bridge

We've finally arrived at the last bridge in the series along the Belt Parkway (Shore Parkway) in Brooklyn and Queens. The Mill Basin Bridge is the bridge west (actually more south) of the Paerdegat Basin Bridge and east of the Gerritsen Inlet Bridge and Flatbush Ave.

This is the only drawbridge along the Belt, a Bascule drawbridge, but it won't be for long. This is one of the bridges along the Belt undergoing or about to undergo total reconstruction. Apparently, the current bridge (including sidewalk) will remain open while the new bridge is being built. When I went over the bridge earlier this summer, it didn't look like work had begun yet, but supposedly the bridge will be done in 2014. Currently having 35 feet of clearance above the water when down, the new fixed bridge will have 60 feet of clearance. This is significant since Mill Basin, along with Gerritsen Inlet to the southwest, has a very active marina with a lot of sailboats and other recreational boats coming and going into Jamaica Bay.

The bridge was opened on June 29, 1940, and some reconstruction work was done in 2006-2007. It carries three lanes of traffic in each direction plus a sidewalk on the south side, which is actually the east side, since the bridge runs basically north-south. The Paerdegat Basin Bridge is about a mile eastward (though actually northward), and about a half mile to the west (south) is the Flatbush Ave. interchange, which is a full cloverleaf vehicular interchange, as Flatbush Ave. to the south leads to Floyd Bennett Field, the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge (previously discussed) and on out to the Rockaways. As the Belt turns to the west it soon crosses the Gerritsen Inlet Bridge (previously discussed). Northward on Flatbush Ave. is the nearest street access to the Mill Basin Bridge, at the corner of Ave. U and Flatbush, where there is the King's Plaza shopping mall, and a city bus stop. The nearest subway stop is still a couple miles up Flabush near Ave. H (2/5 train), or a couple miles west on Ave. U to E. 16th St. (B/Q train). But the most enjoyable running experience is to start in Sheepshead Bay, or even at Coney Island, and run along the Belt all the way to Howard Beach, about 8-10 miles depending on your start, and if you feel like going long, looping around onto the Rockaways using the Congressman Joseph P. Addabbo Bridge, the Cross-Bay Memorial Bridge and the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge. Lots of nice running in New York City uninterrupted by traffic.

Pics: 1. The Sidewalk of the bridge; 2. The view east into Jamaica Bay; 3. The view west into Mill Basin - note the towers of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the far distance!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bridge of the Week #66: Paerdegat Basin Bridge

This week's bridge continues our journey along the Belt Parkway (Shore Parkway) in Brooklyn, heading west from the Fresh Creek Bridge we arrive at the Paerdegat Basin Bridge. Again, this carries the Belt Parkway (this section of which is officially called Shore Parkway) across a small inlet, this being the Paerdigat Basin, three lanes of traffic in each direction and a sidewalk/bike path on the south side.

Like the Fresh Creek Bridge, the Paerdegat Basin Bridge is undergoing reconstruction, part of a plan to rebuild seven bridges on the Belt Parkway (some of which are overpasses over streets rather than bridges over water, therefore will not be covered in this blog). The sidewalk remains open during construction. But the Paerdigat Basin Bridge will undergo quite a transformation. The bridge will be replaced by a pair of bridges, one serving westbound lanes, and one serving eastbound lanes and the sidewalk. The clearance will also be higher, as you can see from the second picture above, there will be fewer spans to cross the water, and the design is different and more interesting than the existing bridge. I believe construction on this bridge is expected to last another two years or so.

The bridge actually runs more north-south than east-west, as the parkway takes a turn to the south here on its way to the west. You have to run a couple miles to the southwest, past the Jamaica Bay Riding Academy and across the Mill Basin Bridge (next week's bridge) before you can get back on the city streets at Flatbush Ave. Heading northeast from the bridge, it's about 3/4 mile to street access at Rockaway Parkway, where you'll also find Canarsie Pier, a very nice recreational park/pier that is very busy on a nice summer day.

The basin itself separates the neighborhoods of Canarsie to the east and Bergen Beach to the west. The name Paerdegat comes from the Dutch word paardengat, meaning "horse gate."

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Race Report: NYRR Team Championships

The annual NYRR Team Championships 5 mile race took place on Aug. 6 in Central Park.

As I lined up to run this race again for the West Side Runners, I really appreciated how this is probably the best race on the NYRR calendar. Even aside from the low entry fee (kept low partly by there being no t-shirt), it truly keeps alive the old traditions of road running in New York, being the one race more than any where the runners are really running for their team. No "unattached" runners may enter, and the men and women run separately an hour apart, so the numbers are low and manageable, only 866 male finishers. Nothing fancy, just a good fast five-mile race.

Afterwards, most teams also set up picnic areas for their members, and this is one of two real social events for WSX, the other being the post-New York Marathon party. So it's great to chat with my teammates. And despite the team competition, there is a lot of interteam socializing as well, and I enjoyed talking with my friends from Van Cortland Track Club, Taconic, Dashing Whippets, Prospect Park Track Club, and more.

As for the race itself, I was very happy with my time of 29:20, which was only a few seconds off my PR! If I had known, I might have pushed for it! I finished in 139th place, 12th in my age group, and third masters scorer for WSX, which took third in the masters division. In the open race, despite taking places 1, 2, 4 and 5 overall, West Side men settled for second in the team competition to New York Athletic Club.

But it was nice weather, a good race, and a good chance to reconnect with friends!

Race Report: Pajama Run 6-Hour

This is a little late in coming, sorry. But better late than never. Maybe. Anyway, on July 30 Rickie Innamorato and BUS staged the Pajama Run, a 6-hour race in the evening, from 6:00 pm to midnight, on a 1.27-mile loop in Astoria Park, Queens.

Despite being a somewhat late addition to the race calendar, 70 runners showed up for the start, more than I've seen at a BUS race in a long time. It was very exciting and encouraging. There were the usual regulars, but a lot of young newcomers or relative newcomers as well, including winners Tommy Pyon and Jimena Barrera. Tommy was kicking it and came up with 48.34 miles! Jimena, running very strong, had 37.93 miles.

David Plosonska, a multi-time Badwater finisher (top 20) came up from Baltimore and got second place with over 46 miles. I got third with 43.7. After my disastrous 24-hour in Philadelphia, I was happy just to keep running the whole six hours. Byron Lane got 4th and Eduardo Lara 5th. A true veteran Gail Marino finished second woman, followed by Amanda Goddard, Lucmar Araujo and Emmy Stocker.

The course was laid out well, it ran under the Triborough Bridge and the Hell Gate Bridge before looping back along the river to the start at the track area. It was heavy with parkgoers the first couple of hours of course, but the crowds thinned out as the race went on. It was also quite hot - about 90 degrees at the start - and stayed quite warm after the sun went down. But it's a beautiful park, it was a festive atmosphere, and Richie and the volunteers did an incredible job as always, but here especially taking on the higher than normal post entries. And it was a nice way to end the 2011 BUS season.

Bridge of the Week #65: Fresh Creek Bridge

This week's bridge is another on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, the Fresh Creek Bridge over Fresh Creek, along the edge of Jamaica Bay.

As with the others, this was built in the late 1930's when the Belt Parkway (Shore Parkway) was constructed. This bridge is one of seven along the Belt (including some side street overpasses) that are currently slated for reconstruction, and in fact, reconstruction is currently well under way. It is one of the links in the nice Belt pathway that extends from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, to Howard Beach, Queens, with bridges to take you out to the Rockaways, so you can do some nice long traffic-free runs here. As the roadways will stay open on all bridges during reconstruction, so will the walkways, even if it's not as quiet and smooth as traffic roars next to you. A temporary bridge will handle traffic while the new bridge is built on the site of the old one.