The Enormous, Beautiful, Amazing George Washington Bridge: Cameron on Transportation

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It’s the bridge we love to hate. Congested, expensive — charging a $15 toll — and lacking the modern design of the soon-to-be completed new Tappan Zee Bridge, the George Washington Bridge is best to be avoided.

Jim Cameron 8-2-16

Jim Cameron (contributed photo)

But that’s often not possible.

The GW was not the first New York City bridge designed to cross the Hudson River. There were discussions back in 1885 about building a suspension bridge to bring the Pennsylvania Railroad into Manhattan at 23rd Street. Tunnels proved to be a better idea in 1904.

Vehicular traffic needed access by the 1920s and designers conceived of a double-deck, 16-lane roadway (with an additional 12 tracks for railroads on the lower level), crossing at 57th Street.

But in 1927, construction finally began on the George Washington Bridge farther uptown, crossing from the New Jersey Palisades to 179th Street. The $75 million single-level bridge opened in 1931 with six lanes of traffic, widened by two additional lanes in 1946.

The span was originally supposed to be called The Bi-State Bridge, The Bridge of Prosperity or The Gate of Paradise, but a naming campaign by school children ended up honoring the first president.

The bridge’s designers fortunately planned for future growth, and the lower-level, six-lane “Martha Washington” section of the bridge was opened in 1962 — increasing capacity by 75 percent.

It’s hard to take it all in unless you see the bridge from the Hudson River. Highway approaches from either side don’t give you much perspective. It’s also hard to be a sightseer when you’re coping with all that traffic.

Original plans called for the bridge to be clad in concrete and granite, but the open crisscross girders and bracing are much more elegant. Though we take it for granted, the GW is recognized by architects as one of the most beautiful bridges in the word.

The bridge carried 5.5 million vehicles in its first year of operation. The count has recently exceeded 100 million per year. While vehicles pay tolls, there’s one way to cross the bridge for free: walking.

While offering great views, the bridge’s pedestrian walkways have a dark side. There were 18 suicides and 43 attempts from the walkways in 2012 alone.

Though motorists never see it, the bridge also has its own bus terminal on the New York side, serving 1,000 buses and about 20,000 passengers each day. Known as the George Washington Bridge Bus Station, the terminal is undergoing a $180 million renovation.

The bridge is also being renovated. The Port Authority announced in 2011 an eight-year, $1 billion project to replace 529 vertical suspender wires holding up the roadways. Lanes on the upper level have also been closed overnights to replace steel surface plates.

A great time to cross the bridge is on important civic holidays, including Presidents Day, when the world’s largest free-flying American flag — weighing 450 pounds — is displayed on the New Jersey tower.

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Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 25 years. He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM and as program director for Darien TV79. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

This article was published on Darienite.com originally at 12:05 a.m., March 24. The time stamp has been changed for layout purposes in the newsletter.