Lethco: George Washington Bridge Reconstruction Misses the Mark on Sustainability

By Trent Lethco, Principal, ARUP; member of the board of Regional Plan Association. 

A question has been on my mind lately: why does the proposed design of one of New York’s most significant public works projects fail to live up to current sustainability standards and why is it so out of sync with what is happening in our region?  As designed the George Washington Bridge (GWB) deck replacement project bucks the trend of enhancing bridge infrastructure for all system users – the Tappan Zee Bridge and SF Bay Bridge being the two most notable examples.

After you read this post below, please contact the Port Authority and let them know that you too would like to see the Complete the George project implemented.  Please also let the RPA know you’ve joined us in asking Port Authority to complete the George in the comments below.

This year, the Port Authority of NY&NJ will embark on the $1.9 billion reconstruction of the George Washington Bridge, the 85-year-old double-decker suspension bridge connecting Manhattan to northern New Jersey. In many respects, the project plan embraces modern standards: it calls for widening the eastern and western approaches, installing ramps in place of stairs on the North Path, and making the bridge ADA-compliant.

When it comes to sustainability, however, the PA seems mired in old guard thinking. Despite the fact that the GWB is the only bike route over the Hudson leaving NYC, the proposed 7-foot paths, tacked to the edges of a high-use roadway, seem more like an afterthought than a true civic amenity and they are intended to be shared between cyclists and pedestrians making them 5 feet short of an acceptable dimension.

Not all that long ago, a first-class bikeway was seen as a luxury, not a key piece of civic infrastructure. But times are changing. For the generations of Americans who grew up under the shadow of climate change, sustainability is way of life. Increasingly cities are recognizing that embracing sustainability is essential to attracting the top talent that keeps them competitive. San Francisco recently completed a 2.2-mile bike path along the eastern span of the Bay Bridge that offers breathtaking views of the Bay and is now retrofitting the Western Span, and, in 2015, Portland, Oregon opened the Tilikum Crossing, a bridge dedicated solely to pedestrians, bikers, and public transit. New York itself is investing $500 million on the Empire State Trail and the new Tappan Zee Bridge to grow active transportation in the Lower-Mid Hudson Valley. With most major cities now actively advancing “green” transportation, the GWB’s modest bike and pedestrian provisions seem like a throwback to an earlier era.

The Port Authority’s GWB bike strategy does not meet current demand, is not safe, and it neglects completely to account for future growth. According to NYCDOT, the George Washington Bridge is the third most biked bridge in the city, with an average of 3,600 cyclists a day on weekends — and the the fastest growing at 10.4% per year (from 2010 to 2015 and again, this is weekends). That rate of growth translates to 9,000 cyclists a day by 2024.   At just 7ft, the PA’s proposed paths cannot hope to accommodate this growth. The logic behind keeping the paths so narrow is unclear. With more than 520 visitors per hour, as of 2015, the GWB already far exceeds the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ user threshold for widening to 14 feet. If the PA fails to properly account for increased usership, the GWB will become a chokepoint for cyclists, hobbling the growth of cycling in the region and significantly impacting tourism and public health. The narrowness of the path also increases the chances of bike accidents—a fact that earned the paths a safety grade of “F – Failing” from the Federal Highway Administration. This lack of functionality has financial implications as well as safety repercussions. The PA’s GWB path design may be ADA compliant, but that doesn’t insulate the agency from liability for accidents.

Large-scale infrastructure projects last for decades and should be designed to provide on-going value to the communities they serve. The restoration of the GWB presents a unique opportunity to enhance civic life, contribute to the health and well-being of residents, promote sustainability and spur economic growth—an opportunity that the PA risks squandering if it proceeds as planned. The U.S. Department of Transportation recommends that transport agencies spend up to 20% of their renovation budgets on biking and walking improvements. In this case, that’s $380 million, yet the PA has allocated less than $20 million for the bridge’s paths. That is simply not enough to bring the facilities up to modern standards.

While enhancing the bridge’s active transit options would require a significant upfront investment, it would also deliver a range of long term economic, social and public health benefits that should not be overlooked, including:

  • Promoting a modal shift away from cars that directly contributes to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
  • Advancing social justice by improving transit accessibility for low-income and minority communities stuck in so-called “transit deserts”
  • Growing tourism and the economy by drawing cyclists from across the region past food and tourist stops in upper Manhattan and the Bronx
  • Delivering significant cost savings in the form of improved public health. (Using the World Health Organization HEAT model to quantify the health benefits of cycling infrastructure, a widened GWB would prevent 21 deaths per year and save $195 million in health care spending.)
  • Enhancing resilience by offering an alternative outlet for tens of thousands of commuters in the event of an emergency, much like the East River bridges did after Superstorm Sandy
  • Enticing the millennial workforce, a demographic that favors bicycling over driving and mass transit
  • Improving safety and air quality
  • Providing a beautiful civic amenity that connects the region’s greenway systems on both sides of the river

If done right, the GWB Reconstruction could be the next critical step in connecting our region and building greater resiliency into the transportation network.

As regional traffic congestion mounts, shifting over to space-efficient, active transit options is essential to New York’s continued prosperity and growth. It is also crucial to meeting our long term sustainability goals. The advantages of incorporating world-class active transit into the GWB are so clear that 170 organizations, businesses, and community advocates have joined together to urge the PA to broaden the scope of the project.

When the George Washington Bridge first opened in 1931, then-Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed it a “monument…to the motor age.” Eighty-five years later, the Port Authority has an opportunity to ensure that the newly renovated bridge is a monument to our changing values and our commitment to a more livable future.


Photo: Bob Jagendorf // Creative Commons


Add yours
  1. 1
    Michael Finfer

    The problem here is that the PA’s biggest source of revenue is tolls. I think that’s why the plans look the way they do.

  2. 3
    Michael Finfer

    That brings up another problem. The tolls are already astronomical. The cash toll is currently $15. How high should they go to provide added bicycle/pedestrian capacity, and why is that not already included in the plan (I’ve hinted at that in my first post). I am not saying that high tolls are bad public policy. They may be if transit fares are low and the service is good, both of which are not true. The Port Authority seems to have the same problem as the MTA. Construction costs are out of control, and planning is defective.

  3. 4
    Blair Federico Bertaccini

    I appreciate your comments very much. I ride on the GWB frequently. It is very dangerous and the PA’s plan would only make it slightly less so. I wrote to the PA from your link.

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