A Big Bridge In The Wrong Place

Aug 19, 2011
Originally published on August 21, 2011 9:54 am

You would never look at a map of the Hudson River, point to the spot where the Tappan Zee Bridge is, and say, "Put the bridge here!"

The Tappan Zee crosses one of the widest points on the Hudson — the bridge is more than three miles long. And if you go just a few miles south, the river gets much narrower. As you might expect, it would have been cheaper and easier to build the bridge across the narrower spot on the river.

So I wanted to answer a simple question: Why did they build the Tappan Zee where they did, rather than building it a few miles south?

I started digging through newspaper clippings from the 1940s and 1950s. It turns out, the bridge was part of a much larger project: The New York State Thruway, one of the first modern highway systems.

The clippings also reveal something suspicious. There was an alternate proposal for a bridge at a narrower spot nearby. The proposal was put forward by top engineers at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

But that proposal was killed by New York governor Thomas E. Dewey. The New York Thruway was his baby; in a 1954 speech he proclaimed that it would be "the world's greatest highway."

I called historians, and libraries and historical societies. No one seemed to know for sure why Governor Dewey did what he did. Then I found Jim Doig, a professor emeritus at Princeton.

Doig interviewed some of the key government officials involved in the project, and knew the answer.

The Port Authority — the body that proposed putting the bridge further south — had a monopoly over all bridges built in a 25-mile radius around the Statue of Liberty.

If the bridge had been built just a bit south of its current location — that is, if it had been built across a narrower stretch of the river — it would have been in the territory that belonged to the Port Authority.

As a result, the Port Authority — not the State of New York — would have gotten the revenue from tolls on the bridge. And Dewey needed that toll revenue to fund the rest of the Thruway.

So Dewey was stuck with a three-mile-long bridge.

Today, the Tappan Zee is in bad shape, and the State of New York is looking into fixing or replacing it. But none of the proposals would move the bridge to a narrower spot on the river. It's too late now: Highways and towns have grown up based on the bridge's current location.

We're stuck with a long bridge at one of the widest spots in the river. The repairs are expected to cost billions of dollars.

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Now we bring you the story of a bridge. If you've ever driven along the upper east coast, there's a good chance you know that very long bridge north of New York City. It's called the Tappan Zee, and it was built, strangely, in what seems to be the spot that makes the least economic sense - across one of the widest parts of the Hudson River. David Kestenbaum with our Planet Money team found out what happened.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Todd Ottman was an assistant managing editor for the Encyclopedia of New York State. He remembers when it got time to do the T entries. He'd grown up in the area and always wondered why the Tappan Zee Bridge seemed to be built in the wrong place.

Mr. TODD OTTMAN (Encyclopedia Editor): Always. Every day, actually. My bedroom window - as a teenager I'd get up in the morning and there was the bridge. Why is it there at one of the widest points in the river?

KESTENBAUM: Ottman looked around for a historian, an expert.

Mr. OTTMAN: We just we couldn't find anybody.

KESTENBAUM: And historical documents weren't much help either. I thought there might be an engineering reason why the Tappan Zee was built where it was. Maybe the river is shallower there. So I went to see the bridge with a forensic engineer, Robert Hintersteiner.

Mr. ROBERT HINTERSTEINER (Forensic Engineer): You see the superstructure, steel work.

KESTENBAUM: That is a long bridge.

Mr. HINTERSTEINER: Three-point-two miles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HINTERSTEINER: Yes, it is.

KESTENBAUM: As an engineer, where would you build this bridge?

Mr. HINTERSTEINER: Personally? I would build at the narrowest point...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HINTERSTEINER: ...but not the longest point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: How narrow is narrowest point?


KESTENBAUM: Today, the bridge is not in great shape. The state of New York is now officially looking at replacing the Tappan Zee. It could cost $6 billion or more. Hintersteiner says this is a lousy place to build a bridge. The river floor is mucky.

If they had built this at a narrower part of the river, would we be in this mess?

Mr. HINTERSTEINER: No, due to the fact that they would have hit solid rock.

KESTENBAUM: Reading through old newspaper clippings from the 1940's and 50's, the plot thickens. The bridge, it turns out, was part of a much larger, very high-stakes project, one of the first highway systems, the New York State Thruway.

Again, Todd Ottman.

Mr. OTTMAN: This was a limited access highway that you could do high speeds on.

KESTENBAUM: What we think of today as a modern highway, but back then, the idea you could go that far without hitting an intersection or a traffic light.

Mr. OTTMAN: Right, right, right, right. Yes, it didn't exist then.

KESTENBAUM: The old newspaper clippings also reveal something suspicious. It turns out, there was an alternate proposal for a bridge at a narrower spot a little further south. The proposal was put forward by top engineers at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, but it got killed by this man...

Governor THOMAS DEWEY (Former Governor of New York): The Thruway will span a new six-lane bridge across Hudson River between...

KESTENBAUM: Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York. This is a speech from 1954.

Gov. DEWEY: The completed thruway will be the world's greatest highway, the longest toll facility...

KESTENBAUM: I called historians and libraries and historical societies - no one seemed to know for sure why Governor Dewey did what he did. And then I found Jim Doig.

Mr. JIM DOIG (Professor Emeritus, Princeton University): My name is Jim Doig, and I'm professor emeritus at Princeton University and currently also teaching at Dartmouth College.

KESTENBAUM: Doig interviewed some of the key government officials involved before they died, and he found why the Tappan Zee bridge was built where it was. The answer: money. The bridge, remember, was a centerpiece of a gigantic highway system, and tolls on the bridge were going to raise a lot of money. Governor Dewey wanted that money to help pay for the rest of the Thruway. And, here's the catch: If he had let the bridge be built further south, where the river narrows, it would have been in Port Authority territory. And the Port Authority, not the state of New York, would have gotten the revenue. Port Authority territory, weirdly, is defined as a big circle centered around - what else? The Statue of Liberty.

Mr. DOIG: Twenty-five mile radius of Statue of Liberty.

KESTENBAUM: The bridge is just a smidge outside of it, Jim Doig says about 2/10ths of one mile. Governor Dewey put the bridge about as close as he could to the line.

Mr. DOIG: It's right there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: He was stuck with a three-mile bridge.

Mr. DOIG: He was definitely stuck with a three-mile bridge, unless wanted to go for a four-mile bridge a little further north.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: None of the proposals today for replacing the bridge would put it in a narrower spot. It's too late now. We've got highways and towns everywhere. We are stuck with a long bridge at one of the widest spots in the river.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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