In late-December, amidst holiday vacations and blizzard hullabaloos, the Port Authority announced its preferred method for dealing with the pesky Bayonne Bridge. Unfortunately, as container ships grow larger, the bridge is not tall enough, and to address this issue without risking a steep decline in business through the region’s ports, the Port Authority had to decide between replacing the bridge and raising it. With cash short, the PA said it will try to raise the bridge, leaving many to wonder what future transit will have over this key link between Staten Island and New Jersey.
To solve the height problem and keep the project’s budget manageable, the Port Authority would like to raise the bridge from 151 feet to 215 feet. The water crossing much reach that height after the Panama Canal is widened in 2014, and in today’s economy, building a new bridge isn’t a feasible solution. Just ask supporters of the ARC Tunnel about that. In its December 30th release on the decision, the PA had the following to say about its plan:
The “Raise the Roadway” solution will involve reconstruction of the existing approaches, ramps, and main span roadway to a higher elevation that would allow the crossing to accommodate larger ships for years to come. The alternative, as compared with others reviewed to replace the bridge, is the most cost effective, and has the fewest environmental and neighborhood impacts. This bridge modification approach also minimizes visual and physical impacts to the historic bridge and seeks to preserve the iconic arch, while improving the navigational clearance restriction.
Port Authority staff is currently drilling down on engineering issues for the proposed solution, including roadway design, lane configuration and upgrades to the existing 10-foot-wide lanes, providing median dividers and shoulders, and adding additional safety and security measures. The Port Authority also will work with its regional partners to initiate and expedite the environmental regulatory process.
Noticeably missing from the Port Authority’s own initial announcement was any mention of transit. Those who wish to see Staten Island’s nascent transit network better connected to New Jersey’s and who are pushing for a North Shore Rail Line reactivation were dismayed by the news. As Maureen Donnelly reported in the Staten Island Advance last week, the borough’s transit activists are not happy that the Port Authority has said that “it’s too soon in the process to make an informed determination whether space might be set aside to handle bus or rail traffic over the bridge.”
A PA spokesman said that raising the roadway “does not preclude the use of mass transit,” but borough officials aren’t satisfied. “We have a significant opportunity here, and it would be the right thing for the Port Authority to at least provide the space — and we’ll work on trying to figure out how to establish whether it’s a rail link or bus rapid transit, or something of that sort,” Linda Baran, president of the SI Chamber of Commerce, said. “They’d be crazy not to have a dedicated lane. This is something that’s feasible.”
Feasible is almost too tame a word for this scenario. After killing the ARC Tunnel, might New Jersey, the primary mover behind the Bayonne Bridge makeover, be again sacrificing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve transit access and interconnectedness between Staten Island and the Garden State? In an ideal world, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail would run over the bridge and offer a connection to the North Shore Rail Line. Of course, in an ideal world, costs don’t matter while here they do. Anything less than a truly dedicated bus lane shouldn’t even be on the table.
The Bayonne Bridge has stood for 80 years at its current height and with its current configuration. As New York and New Jersey look for ways to improve transit connections, this bridge shouldn’t be overlooked, and now’s the time to act. The region can’t afford to wait another 80 years before having another go at it.