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Faster Speedways or Swifter Madness?

Billions spent on new bridges to satisfy ego, spread sprawl

May 10, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


The new eight-lane, $631 million Cooper River Bridge in Charleston, S.C., is scheduled to open in 2006 and is the largest bridge project in that state’s history. Though spectacular in design, the 500-foot-tall bridge will speed traffic and contribute to sprawling development in the Charleston metropolitan region.

America is a’brimming with plans for new bridges. Like the “star-chitecture” that persuades communities to go for lavish new buildings by name designers, showboating bridge designs are causing communities across the country to swell highway-based crossings. Just as Boston’s new landmark, the cable-stayed Bunker Hill/ Zakim bridge by Swiss engineer Christian Menn, earns praise for its graceful outline, the shining steel structure brings dismay for darkening the Charles River’s shoreline below and excluding pedestrians above. Others share that fate.

Now, as for generations, bridges reach into our past and define our tomorrow. Yet, for all their elegance as structure, such breath-taking new bridges can lock the landscape of America into a future dependent on private vehicles, pricey fuel, polluting tailpipes, and sprawling growth. The new east span of the $ l.5 billion dollar San Francisco/Oakland Bay bridge, a shapely structure designed to solve earthquake issues, has instead caused controversy on whether it is more or, in fact, less resistant to the deadly tremors. Beyond the physics, many wonder about the finances. Will emptying federal coffers really do anything to solve congestion?

Still the proposals for new and repaired bridges grow, along with a heroic urge to produce regional icons. Splashy, cable-stay bridges, their towering peers laced taut with wires that make them seem light as air and soaring as a kite, have emerged from Charleston, South Carolina, to Owensboro, Kentucky. Glass City, Toledo, has gone for a six-lane – what else? – glass structure across the Maumee River.

Bridges For Cars, Not People
The boom in bridges emulates the European tradition of image-conscious structures that create a signature landmark, an identifying keepsake wrought with soaring dimensions. But the modern American version disowns Europe’s more humanistic, pedestrian-friendly values. The new Erasmus bridge in Rotterdam, for instance, is a multi-service structure that boasts lanes for rail and bike, along with cars. Not so the U.S. expansions.

Such concerns for the nature of new bridges are neither frivolous nor few. Some 600,000 highway bridges tie the nation together, many of them in miserable condition. According to the federal Transportation Research Board 23,244 deficient bridges exist in the National Highway System, with those in California, Massachusetts, New York and Texas in the worst condition. Another l3,459 local or non-national highway system bridges need attention, with Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa leading that list.

As Congress this year debates renewing the national six-year transportation spending bill, with roughly $36 billion a year on road and highway construction considered, older surfaces suffer. Too much of the money goes to slick unnecessary newcomers, bridges expanded beyond what drivers need, while urgent repairs to sturdy and handsome old timers languish, their parts and patina fragmenting into the waters below.

What A Waste
A case in point is the proposed $55 million highway and bridge over the Boardman River south of Traverse City, Michigan. Critics have scored the project’s size and cost. They insist that, in fact, it will do more than nothing to solve congestion. It will actually make it worse. Meanwhile an existing and older bridge across the river less than a mile away languishes. Repairing it would cost less than $3 million.

In Traverse City, as elsewhere across the country, highway departments seem to be using such new bridge proposals as an excuse, or exercise, to widen their roadways, add traffic, and push development to the fringes. Instead of simply repairing the Tacoma Narrows bridge across the Puget Sound in Washington, for example, highway forces paid $489 million for a second adjacent bridge with more lanes of traffic. Gone with the pricey project was the opportunity to use the funds for further rail and ferries that could truly relieve the Northwest region’s gridlock.

Beyond the fact that building new bridges is a far pricier exercise than renovating old ones, such constructions also serve as tools for developers’ ploys and transportation department aggrandizement. In a this-is-the-house-that-Jack-built rhythm, the new bridge leads to new roads… that lead to new developments built by companies… that make the contributions to the politically privileged …who support the highways …that bring the buildings…that cause more sprawl.

Most blatantly, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s new toll road went to a bridge “to alleviate congestion and traffic delays” by linking I-95 in Chesterfield County to I-295 in Henrico County. Their sentimental favorite, the so-called Vietnam Memorial Bridge, used a new financing scheme designed by the agency’s road gang to allow a private entity to help pay for the bridge, and then profit from the development it encouraged. In the end, developers paid a scant one third of the $324 million project’s cost to have their way with the land.

Fix The Beautiful Old Bridges
The tragedy is that the nation is replete with bridges truly ripe for public investment. Alas, they attract neither the attention — nor the funds — from such profiteering sources. One phalanx of such structures in need of spending is railroad bridges. Rail freight bridges wobble and drip rust to water and soil across the nation. So do passenger ones: the newsletter of Trainriders’ New England reminds readers that “two antique moveable-bridge spans in Connecticut are in danger of failure,” a crash that could not only hurt life and limb but shut down passenger rail service between Boston and New York. The same story affects hundreds of other passenger and freight rail bridges.

Another group that merits care and tending is historic bridges. The activism around saving small, old bridges from Newburyport, Massachusetts' chain bridge, to Boston’s Northern Avenue pedestrian walkway fosters constituencies who spread an alternate message to the out-of-scale model of the highway gang.  Caring and tending to old bridges with solid stewardship, and evaluating the needs of new ones with a sense of economy and purpose for their end route can usher out our wasteful freeway life and welcome a compact, ecologically-sound way of developing.

By engineering for the environment and the human scale, today’s bridges, as those of earlier generations, can frame a landmark of livability, establish a convenient and connected zone of human mobility and add to the livability of place built on the principles of sustainable growth.

Jane Holtz Kay is architecture critic of The Nation and author of Asphalt Nation and Lost Boston. Reach her at jholtzkay@aol.com.

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