Complete the George Washington Bridge
Imagine a region with 10 million residents separated by a mile-wide river. One side is densely urban, the other mostly suburban. Having placed a priority on bicycle travel, the two sides plan to spend $2 billion over 20 years to build out their respective bicycle networks.
Now imagine that the only way to cycle from one side of the river to the other is across a 1930’s-era bridge that crowds bikes and pedestrians together on a single sidewalk.
Unfortunately, this scenario illustrates actual present-day conditions in New York City and North Jersey. The bridge is the George Washington, operated by the Port Authority. If you’ve been on the bridge on a nice weekend, you know first-hand what the congestion and near-chaos are like.
So it could be good news that the GWB will soon undergo a vast once-in-a-century recabling program, a $1 billion, 10-year project that will rip out and restore the north and south bike/ped paths. This would seem an ideal time — if not the only time — to expand its capacity for cyclists and pedestrians. Yet the Port Authority says that to save money on the project, the paths will be rebuilt to the same dimensions that already exist.
In December 2011, other New York Cycle Club members and I first learned about the recabling project.
We were alarmed that the Authority announced no plans to maintain access to bike, foot or wheelchair traffic for the duration of the recabling, nor to take the opportunity to upgrade the paths to support the growing demand. In our view, these oversights were big mistakes — especially the latter.
Accordingly, we initiated a campaign to secure ADA-compliant access for the duration of the recabling project and to urge PA to rebuild the paths according to national standards for high use. This campaign appeared both reasonable and natural, given the congestion on the bridge path, the extensive benefits to the region, and the Authority’s own statements and mandates on bicycle access.
In March 2014, the Authority responded that it would enhance the GWB Paths by upgrading the path entrances, removing the stairs on the North Path and adding anti-suicide barriers. We applauded, and indeed had advised, these improvements.
But at the same time, the Authority announced that it would leave the main spans unchanged at 6.75′. That is less than half of the width recommended for a “high-use” facility. If the bridge paths are overcrowded now, can you imagine what they will be like in 10 years — let alone in the decades to come?
Connecting 10 million residents and two of the most heavily biked corridors in the country — Hudson Greenway and Route 9W — through a single 6.75′ path, is like connecting two fire hoses with a straw!
In December 2014, our campaign gained traction when Manhattan Community Board #12, representing some 200,000 residents near the GWB, voted unanimously to call on the Authority to “build out the paths comparable to what now exists on the Williamsburg Bridge.”
Also in December, in response to PA’s Plan, we presented Authority commissioners with a Cyclists’ Proposal that employed prefabricated aluminum structures to upgrade the east-west approaches and augment the pedestrian paths with 10′ wide outboard bikeways and 9′ tall anti-suicide barriers.
The benefits of this proposal are that it would:
- Ensure separate paths for pedestrians, runners and cyclists, sharply reducing conflicts between the users.
- Incorporate a 9′ high anti-suicide barrier, while maintaining unobstructed views from the pedestrian path.
- Carve a second path through the towers to spare cyclists from negotiating the blind turns that already cause so many conflicts.
The Cyclists’ Proposal calls for a facility that conforms to national guidelines for high use (AASHTO); can support increased demand by all users well into the century (FHWA); and fulfills USDOT expectations that transportation agencies upgrade bicycle-pedestrian facilities on bridges during major renovations.
Following this presentation, three PA commissioners asked that the Cyclists’ Proposal be vetted internally.
In January 2015, we met with PA engineers, who seemed to corroborate (or at least never questioned) the Proposal’s benefits. Nor were any elements deemed technically unfeasible or “off the table.” To the contrary, PA’s engineers affirmed that the Authority could widen the GWB paths at any time, except that “other projects required funds.”
That last point begs the question: When will come a time that other projects don’t require funds? The GWB is expected to gross $700 million in 2015 alone, many times what it would take to fund the work.
And what level of user demand would trigger a buildout? Peak use on the GWB paths already exceeds 600 users per hour — twice the AASHTO threshold for a “high-use” facility. And with it growing at 7.2% per year, we’ll reach AASHTO-times-four by 2024, the same year the recabling is done. Certainly, if the renovated bridge generates increased demand as is expected.
But by then, the low-cost opportunity to upgrade the paths will be gone forever, consigning generations of cyclists to walk the span and crippling the growth of cycling across the region for a century.