September 17th, 2007 3 Minute Read Testimony by Hope Cohen

Testimony by Hope Cohen on Safety of New York City's Bridges

Thank you, Mr. Chairman for inviting me to testify on the safety of New York City's bridges.

I am Hope Cohen, Deputy Director of the Center for Rethinking Development at the Manhattan Institute.

By this point in the hearing, we have heard—rightly—many reassurances from transportation officials that our bridges are safe enough for use. "If/when they get dangerous, we shut them down." And, indeed, two weeks from now, the lower roadway of the Manhattan Bridge will reopen fully to traffic of all vehicle types. Under repair since 1982, various lanes at various times have been closed when dangerous; just before Christmas in 1987, Samuel Schwartz, then the First Deputy Commissioner of Transportation, closed a lane to all traffic and the entire lower roadway to trucks and buses, when inspectors found 20 floor beams with cracks longer than 15 inches. And now, $800 million later, the Manhattan Bridge job is almost done. (By the way that number does not include all the capital work to reconstruct the subway line across the bridge. Many in this room remember the years of disruption to transit service because of the subway work required.) So yes, bridges are closed before pieces of them start falling into the city's rivers and bays. It's great that DOT's engineers are able to catch these problems in the nick of time. But do we really want to be living this close to the river's edge?

New York's bridges are operated and maintained by three different entities:

  1. Hudson River crossings by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
  2. seven scattered among the five boroughs (along with two tunnels crossing the East River) by MTA Bridges & Tunnels (successor to the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority)
  3. all the rest, big and small, throughout the city, by the city and state departments of transportation.

The first two categories are tolled, regularly and fully maintained, and in good condition. It can be annoying to drivers that as soon as they finish painting the Throgs Neck Bridge, they start over again, but actually, that's what bridges need when exposed to water and wind and salt - and auto exhaust. The third category, which includes the Manhattan Bridge, along with many far less well known, is not tolled. Having no dedicated revenue stream for maintenance, they simply cannot be maintained at the level that the Port Authority and Bridges & Tunnels maintain their facilities.

Last December, we hosted a forum at the Center for Rethinking Development on public acceptance of congestion pricing—yes, we were a bit ahead of the curve on that. One of the panelists was Sam Schwartz—the same Sam Schwartz who shut down a dangerous Manhattan Bridge in 1987—who is now a sought-after transportation consultant as well as The Daily News' "Gridlock Sam." He argued that congestion pricing would benefit the city in multiple ways: reducing traffic, redistributing traffic in a more balanced manner, and yielding revenue for transportation maintenance and improvement. Some East River crossings are free and some are tolled, with the following result, in Sam's words: "The Queensboro Bridge, which should be used by 110,000 vehicles a day, is used by 150,000 vehicles a day, and those additional vehicles come from the Midtown Tunnel and from the Triborough Bridge, with no revenue stream to fix the Queensboro Bridge. It's been crumbling, and all our bridges have been crumbling because there has been no revenue base. So it's been bad for us to have those extra 40,000 vehicles pounding the bridge with no revenue stream to maintain the bridge."

All of the city's bridges need regular—even constant—maintenance, and the city needs the funds to ensure that occurs. The funds are not negligible by any means. But they're a lot less—in both straightforward construction dollars and in lost economic activity—than taking roadways and subways out of service for years at a time. Constant monitoring and early intervention are essential. Responsible budgeting and allocation is part of the answer. Perhaps congestion pricing is part of the answer too.


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