Deconstructing the Tappan Zee: Where Does It All Go?

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by Barrett Seaman – 

Closeup of a large section of the old bridge.
—Photo: New York State Thruway Authority

Like a giant Mantis, the 328-ft. arm of the super crane (dubbed I Lift NY) hovers over its prey — seemingly for hours as its mechanized talons are calibrated so as to grasp just the right places. Once aligned, it descends, locks onto the latticework of a 235-foot-long steel truss and lifts it slowly skyward. That’s no small feat, as the larger trusses on the Tappan Zee Bridge weigh in at about 1,300 tons apiece.

Not counting the prep work, the removal of each of nearly 20 trusses takes half a day before it is secured onto the deck of an awaiting barge. From there, it will head upriver to the Port of Coeymans, New York, some 12 miles south of Albany, where Tappan Zee Constructors, the project’s general contractor, has created a staging area both for material headed down to build the new bridge and for remnants of the old Tappan Zee, headed either to recycling centers or to one of nine New York State communities that have requested segments for their own infrastructure needs.

For those who hoped to see the old bridge disintegrate in one spectacular implosion, like the final scene in the 1957 film classic, Bridge on the River Kwai, this methodical deconstruction of the Tappan Zee might be a big disappointment. But at its own deliberate pace, the process is as fascinating as it is efficient.

Deconstruction of the old bridge began the day back in October when the north span of the new bridge opened to two-way traffic. The lattice-like trusses were removed from the outside in—by necessity, since the landing areas on both the eastern and western shores overlapped with the planned landing areas of the new bridge. The trickiest section, in terms of logistics, was the section over the Metro North tracks. That was a nighttime project in mid-November that involved some train rescheduling as well as stoppage of auto traffic.

By Christmas, all but a handful, including the elevated center trusses that compete annoyingly for the skyline with the flowing support cables of the new bridge, had been plucked up and shipped off. Left behind, sticking forlornly out of the water are the cement support stanchions, graceless by comparison to the clean lines of the taller support stanchions bearing up the new bridge. When all is said and done, sometime late next year, even they will be gone — right down to the riverbed. Giant pneumatic hammers will break them up below the surface and excavators will haul them up onto barges to be shipped elsewhere.

Tappan Zee Constructors has touted its plan to re-purpose virtually every piece of the old bridge, but according to officials, the vast majority of that will be recycled in traditional ways. The concrete pilings will be ground down to rubble for re-use. Most of the steel in the trusses will be sliced up into manageable pieces, melted down and re-forged.

The most popular hand-me-downs are the 135 steel and concrete deck panels, each 13 by 50 feet and eight and a quarter-inch thick, weighing up to 86,500 lbs. Nine counties in the state, plus the New York State Department of Transportation, have requested these plates for use either in specific infrastructure projects or just to have in hand for the next one that comes up.

Livingston County in western New York, south of Rochester, has dibs on six plates they hope to receive in the spring. Don Higgins, the county’s Highway Superintendent, says he has no specific plan at the moment — except perhaps one bridge with flooding issues that might be resolved with one of the bridge deck panels. Livingston County’s cost for these panels? “One dollar is my understanding,” said Higgins. The state is footing an estimated $3 million to distribute the behemoth slabs. “That the state has gone above and beyond to make these panels is just amazing,” he adds.

Not every piece of the Tappan Zee has been accounted for…yet. That snake-like moveable lane separator that undulated north for morning rush hour and then back south in the evening: that still languishes in Nyack while the Thruway Authority “is reviewing its options.”

Anybody need a three-mile long adjustable lane separator?

I Lift NY raises a large section of the old bridge near the Westchester landing.
—Photos: New York State Thruway Authority
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