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What is prosaically referred to as "the Triborough Bridge" is actually a staggeringly huge collection of four bridges (possibly five, if you include the Randall's Island footbridge), a number of viaducts connecting the bridges and parkways, a jumble of parks (for Robert Moses, the man behind the bridge, also built parks, and the bridge would not have been built without them), fifteen miles of access roads (all built as part of the bridge complex, many literally built up out of the water), and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority's administrative buildings. The bridges connect four islands with the American mainland, joining three of New York City's boroughs together and allowing motorists from the Bronx and above to enjoy Long Island's beaches without the irritation of driving across a two-lane drawbridge and then a further long drive down Manhattan to the next available crossing. Now they could bypass Manhattan entirely, or enter it without the hassle of crossing the aforementioned drawbridge. All this lumped under the name "Triborough Bridge"; the last three letters of the first word are usually even left off, further condensing this massive project.

Like many if not all of New York City's river crossings, the original idea was delayed for years; it is hard to imagine that this city of islands would be so long in connecting them, but it was indeed the case. The three-way span was first proposed in 1916 by engineer Edward A. Byrne. The idea was well-liked, but work was never started as the city ran surveys, conducted tests, and probably fed their politicians. Gustav Lindenthal also offered a plan in the early 1920s, desiring to add a second deck to his recently completed Hell Gate railroad bridge for automobile traffic, rather than have another bridge built that would stop people admiring the beauty of his bridge. Lindenthal's plans also called for the bridge to land on Manhattan at two points, both further south than its current 125th st. approach.

Ground was finally broken by Mayor Jimmy Walker on October 25, 1929, the Friday following the "Black Thursday" of the stock market crash. The $5.4 million intended for bridge construction was quickly spent, and work was halted in early 1930. Legal and political trouble delayed the project further, until Robert Moses, in his frenzy of park and highway building all over New York State, talked governor Al Smith into restarting the project, under his control, claiming that this bridge was essential in unifying the New York City parkway system. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia installed Moses as the new chair of the Triborough Bridge Authority, and President Franklin Roosevelt authorized a $37 million loan to the authority under the new Public Works Authority.

The original plans of the bridge, designed by Arthur I. Perry, called for a Hell Gate crossing of two towers and four cables, suspending a two-deck, 16-lane road between them. Moses put Othmar Ammann (designer of the George Washington Bridge) in charge of the project before construction even resumed. Ammann redesigned the bridge to keep costs down, while still keeping some of Perry's ideas, and making sure it fit with the few parts already constructed. The number of decks was reduced to one, to save time and cost, and because Moses did not feel that the bridge would be used heavily enough to warrant the extra expense. The bridge was also redesigned to be bare steel rather than the granite-clad idea previously postulated; this was partly to keep weight and costs down, and partly as a stab at the Tammany powers, who held a lot of interest in nearby granite quarries. This redesign, all in the current Art Deco style, saved the Authority about $10 million.

The second bridge in the complex crossed what is technically the Harlem River, between Randall's Island and Manhattan Island. Moses wanted the bridge to terminate at 103rd street, running in a straight line across the water from Queens. However, the original plans called for the bridge to land on 125th street. The truth was soon discovered; the reason the site was chosen was because William Randolph Hearst owned the land in question and wanted the city to buy it. Moses bowed to Hearst's wishes, knowing that if he didn't, Hearst would use his influence to slow the bridge's construction further. This would, however, be the only real concession Moses made to outside forces.

This span is actually three, with the central one being the required lifting bridge (for the river was (and is) still used for shipping). The six-lane (plus two sidewalks) bridge was the largest of its kind when it opened, but it was saved from being the heaviest by Ammann's cost-cutting measures; the steel-plated roadway was covered with planks of asphalt rather than paved with concrete.

The third bridge crosses the Bronx Kills between Randall's Island and the Bronx. The bridge was designed so that if the then-unnavigable Kills were ever made open, it could be converted into a lifting bridge. The Kills were eventually all but filled in by parkland, so this feature was never needed. The fourth span crosses the now non-existant gap between Randall's and Ward's Island, filled in by Moses' parks.

The whole bridge complex was carefully designed for ease of traffic flow, contrary to what current users may think. The cloverleaf interchange was designed carefully that all twenty-two lanes of traffic, going in up to twelve separate directions, would never require roads to intersect (using three separate planes to do so), and would always result in the drivers ending up at one (and only one) toll booth, two separate plazas of which were provided.

The leftover money was used by Moses to build what were, through various semantic loopholes, classified as "approach lanes". Rather than deal with the cost of condemning all of the homes that lay between the Northern Boulevard terminus of his Grand Central Parkway and the bridge, Moses had sand dragged up from the Rockaways, mixed with stone, and dumped off of the coast of Long Island; this mixture was then covered in concrete and turned into the western end of the Grand Central Parkway, curving into the approach for the bridge. The East River Parkway (now the FDR Drive) was built through more of Moses' machinations from the north end of York Avenue (92nd Street) up to the bridge's landing at 125th Street. Further political maneuvering brought about the destruction of the mental hospitals on the two East River islands and allowed Moses to build his parks, as well as the new headquarters of the Authority.

The construction of this bridge, or these bridges and parkways and parks, was such a massive undertaking that it essentially supported the country's economy. Each girder of the bridge necessitated the joining of four barges to carry it to the site. Cement factories, closed by the Depression, were reopened to provide the massive amounts of concrete the bridge required (even after the amounts were reduced!). To provide the wood that built the forms into which the concrete was poured, forests in Oregon were levelled. Workers in 134 cities in 20 states were put to work on the bridge complex.

The bridge tolls, a steep 25 cents, went to pay back the bonds issued by the Triborough Bridge Authority to help pay for its construction; the amount quickly became a surplus and was used in part to help build the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. The rate at which the bridge paid for itself also went far in paving the way for other crossings designed by the Authority.

There is possibly a sad story involved in the history of the bridge. George Haupt, a Harlem native and Astoria resident at the time he was interviewed, claimed that he had the idea for the bridge, very similar to its eventual design, as early as 1909. He showed these plans to a city Alderman, who later was forced out of town. On hearing of the plans to restart bridge construction, he redesigned his model. He was scheduled to meet with one of the Triborough commisioners, but the commisioner died before the meeting could happen. He was incensed by Moses' speech that claimed that whoever had the first idea was unimportant, since he felt that he was that whoever! He was never invited to the opening ceremonies, and the closest he got to official recognition was receiving a copy of the program from Mayor LaGuardia. The Star-Journal (presumably an Astoria newspaper) interviewed him in 1939, and he remained basically forgotten from then on.

BRIDGE FACTS

The East River (Queens-Randall's) span totals 2,780' in length, rising a maximum of 143' above mean high water. The Bronx portion is 1600' long and 55' above the water's surface. The Manhattan arm is 770' long, with the center (lifting) portion 310' long. The lifting portion is 55' above the East River and can be raised to 135'. The Manhattan arm is also the narrowest, holding only six lanes of traffic instead of the eight the other two can hold. The Manhattan arm is also the only way for vehicles to enter Randall's Island. A footbridge to the island was added in 1951, crossing at 103rd Street.

The bridge was officially started on October 25, 1929; no date can be found for when Moses restarted construction. It was opened to traffic on July 11, 1936; this month was apparently the deadline required either by the WPA or perhaps by Moses himself.

30,000 vehicles a day, on average, passed through the tollbooths in just the first year alone. The number is now approximately 200,000 per day. The growing numbers necessitated reconstruction of the Randall's Island toll plaza and interchange in the late 1960's.

The bridge is under the control of the Metropolitan Transit Authority; like all of the MTA crossings save the Verrazano, the toll is $3.50 each way as of this writing. The bridge, at least the Queens-Bronx portion, is part of I-278.

The bridge is currently in the midst of a $550 million rehabilitation. The ramp connecting the Manhattan arm to the Bronx arm suffered a partial collapse in 2002; however, the collapsed part was behind existing construction barriers, so traffic could still cross. The project is due to be completed in 2009.

There is, somehow, a pedestrian walkway/bikeway that connects the three boroughs. Maps do not make clear how this works with the tangle of automobile traffic; it seems to require trips arounnd Randall's and Ward's Islands in some cases. I have been recently informed that the bikeway is under construction; online sources cannot confirm nor deny this.

SOURCES

Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker. Vintage Books-Random House, 1974.
http://www.nycroads.com/crossings/triborough/
http://www.mta.nyc.ny.us/bandt/html/triboro.htm
http://www.transalt.org/bridges/triboro.html
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/newyork/laic/episode6/topic3/e6_t3_s4-tt.html
http://www.asce.org/history/brdg_triborough.html
http://www.astorialic.org/starjournal/features/triborough.htm
http://risf.citysearch.com/2.html
http://www.nycroads.com/crossings/hell-gate/
http://www.transalt.org/bridges/bridgif/map_triboro_island.gif

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