View Toward Gotham from the old Tappan Zee (Gunther)
By Arthur H. Gunther III
The mighty Hudson River in New York, not a western route to Asia through the Northwest Passage as Hendrick Hudson hoped it would be in 1609, but to the great port of Albany, is now relatively beautiful, as the explorer found it. Once assaulted by industrial discharge, its waters are these days enjoyed by boaters and those who live in expensive housing along the shore as well as those who can get to the river’s edge and view sights from New York City to the Palisades escarpment, to Hook and Bear mountains, to West Point, enjoying many of nature’s gifts on both the eastern and western shores.
The river is crossed by several bridges, including the newly opened twin-span Mario M. Cuomo, replacing the historically named Tappan Zee, built in 1955. Both river crossings, from South Nyack to Tarrytown, were — are — controversial, and not only because the new one is named by a sitting governor, Andrew, for his father, also a former New York chief executive.
There were two principal players in the decades-long buildup of the old Tappan Zee Bridge, which is an essential part pf the New York state Thruway, from Buffalo to the Bronx: the “progress” people, including land speculators, and, on the other side, those who sought to keep Rockland County semi-rural. The preservationists lost, and many of the old ways and more than 100 other homes and the South Nyack village downtown are long gone. But the “progress” people did not win, either, since hurried, poorly planned development has brought drainage, traffic, infrastructure and quality-of-life problems. And now there is the “graying” of Rockland, with an older population, development homes requiring renovation and perhaps not enough tax money going forward. No one knows what the future will bring, especially with the continuing decline of the middle class. Who will step up to rebuild and reinvigorate overbuilt Rockland?
Yet interstate travel, especially trucks, the real winner in the construction of the Thruway and the Tappan Zee Bridge, will continue, and even a shiny new set of crossings across the Dutch “zee” or sea will not solve Rockland’s woes nor the growing traffic concerns and the utter need to renovate the Thruway in the county. The new spans may well prove to be bridges “too far.”
The original $80 million Tappan Zee — $668 million in today’s dollars — camemto be because in the later 1940s New York Gov. Thomas Dewey proposed a super highway in the German “Autobahn” style, from Suffern/Hillburn, at the New Jersey border, to upstate New York, to foster commerce. But it soon became apparent that the Thruway bond holders could not be paid off without a big revenue source, and so the idea of extending the road to New York City via a Hudson crossing at South Nyack was quickly adopted, thus providing a nicely ringing “cash register.”
Trouble was that non-quality materials and a cheap design were used to construct the Tappan Zee. Eventual overuse put the bridge in danger of major failure, and in October 2011, at the direction of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Thruway Authority and the New York State Department of Transportation jointly proposed the two new spans, which eventually will include pedestrian and biking lanes and lookouts for viewers.
The “progress” legacy of the first crossing has not proven nearly as grand as first advertised, since rapid suburban growth has overtaxed local planners, zoners and the infrastructure. The new crossings will bring even more interstate travelers through geographically small Rockland, and there seems no benefit to residents. The interstate network will still have major flaws in the lower Hudson Valley region, and though a poorly planned and built 1955 crossing has been replaced by wonderfully engineered, safe structures, they will connect to overworked interstates on both sides of the Hudson.
The first Tappan Zee was built as a “cash register,” not as a well-planned conduit for progress.” It witransfer that legacy to the new spans.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org