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Why Build a Bridge Too Far?

Friday, May 16, 2014

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He was no engineer, but the kid who looked out over the Tappan Zee Bridge from his bedroom every day knew when something didn't make sense.

And it didn't make sense to him that the bridge yawned more than three miles over the Hudson River, when one-mile crossings were available not far away.

New NY Bridge
New York State Thruway Authority

The old Tappan Zee Bridge, which opened in 1955, was built over the second-widest stretch of the Hudson River. Its successor, the New New York Bridge, will do the same.

Finding out why his state's longest bridge was built in the early 1950s at the second-widest point in the river became Tod Otman's obsession later in life as an assistant editor of The Encyclopedia of New York State.

And now that the old seven-lane Tappan Zee is being reborn as the New New York Bridge—wider, with twin spans, but in the same spot—for $4 billion, the question arises again.

Wikimedia Commons / Patrice78500

The Tappan Zee opened in 1955, designed for a 50-year life and 100,000 vehicles a day. It now carries 138,000 daily. The wider New New York Bridge will be designed for 100 years.

The answer to the mystery lies in a report that National Public Radio first aired three years ago. NPR reprised the report Wednesday (May 14) on All Things Considered, after President Obama visited the bridge construction project to stump for federal funding for highways and bridges.

The president also used the occasion to announce that 11 other major projects were being fast-tracked. He noted that more than 20,000 U.S. bridges and more than 350,000 miles of U.S. roads had been repaired or replaced in the past five years.

Obama at the NNYB
White House photo / Pete Souza

President Obama praised the $4 billion bridge project, if not its name, in a visit Wednesday (May 14).

He praised the political muscle behind the so-called "New New York Bridge" and the progress being made by the construction consortium known as Tappan Zee Constructors LLC. And although he chided the name, he never mentioned that the project was—and again would be—three times bigger than necessary.

Why was, and is, it being done that way? According to NPR, Tod Otman spent years tracking down the answer.

The resulting four-minute explanation is a fascinating tale about—you guessed it—politics and money.

Listen to it here.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Construction; Design; Government contracts

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