by Barrett Seaman –
With the cordite-like smell of election politics thick in the September air above, the Mario C. Cuomo Bridge has finally grown by small fits and big starts into a full two-span, eight-lane conduit across the Hudson, while the old Tappan Zee shrinks beside it.
By mid-month, eastbound traffic flowed freely on the southernmost span, after a second grand opening officiated by Governor Andrew Cuomo. More slowly, to accommodate the removal of lane-separating Jersey barriers and the application of paint, the westbound span reached its full, one-way potential only at month’s end. All that’s left now is the addition of the express bus lanes, scheduled for the end of October, and the 12-ft. wide “shared use” pathway for bicycles and pedestrians overlooking the river to the north, still off in the future.
Almost nothing happened without drama, as befits the political silly season leading up to November elections. Surprising many, the governor opened the eastbound span on September 7, a week before the September 13 Democratic primary, launching a not-so-sotto voce stage whisper campaign that he forced the opening on his construction team for political gain. Arriving once again by car—this time the 1932 Packard Phaeton convertible that Franklin Roosevelt had bequeathed to future New York governors—Cuomo spoke emotionally about his relationship with his father, for whom the bridge is named. Hillary Clinton was the featured speaker, whom Cuomo introduced as “the person I believe should be sitting in the Oval Office today.”
In case anybody missed his larger target, the governor echoed Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 Berlin call to Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.” Cuomo said: “Mr. President, stop your quest to build a wall and start building bridges.” He meant, of course, not only the literal bridges Trump had campaigned on with his unfulfilled trillion-dollar infrastructure campaign but also the figurative bridges needed to unite a fractious nation.
Clinton picked up the metaphor in only a slightly more obtuse way. “If you can build it here,” she said, “you can build it anywhere.” She also took care to recognize a major Cuomo constituency, the people who actually built the bridge: the 7,000 workers who put in 11.5 million hours of construction, using 220 million pounds of American steel with the help of 847 New York businesses awarded contracts to work on the bridge.
The ceremony was on a Friday morning, with the actual opening scheduled to take place gradually over the weekend ahead. But before a single pylon was moved aside, engineers noticed that work dismantling the adjacent Tappan Zee Bridge had rendered some areas unstable. Thruway Executive Director Matt Driscoll issued a statement early Saturday explaining a delay in the traffic transfer.
“In continued disassembly of the old Tappan Zee Bridge last night, a potentially dangerous situation developed where a piece of the old bridge has become destabilized and could fall. Given its proximity to the new completed span, out of an abundance of caution, motorists will remain in the current traffic configuration until a thorough evaluation by Tappan Zee Constructors is complete,” Driscoll explained. “Once finished, it will be ready to open to traffic as soon as the Thruway Authority is assured there is no risk to the new span.”
Cuomo’s political opponents pounced on the delay like Roger Federer on a loose volley. “Safety has to come above all else,” lectured his primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon (who the following week would take a decisive thrashing in the primary). “The governor needs to be fully transparent about what happened here,”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro went further, calling for an investigation. “There are real, reasonable questions about whether this bridge span opening was accelerated to aid the governor’s campaign,” he said in a statement.
The deconstruction risk never materialized, but a story that made it to The New York Times claimed that the governor had offered the contractors, TZ Constructors, incentives to get the job done by primary day.
It won’t be until November before we learn whether voters—or at least enough of them—are influenced by such news. But for now, the new bridge, by any name, is doing its part.