The pedestrian bridge planned for West Thames Street, currently seven years behind schedule, is now slated to begin construction before the end of this year, but its estimated cost has almost doubled in nine months and nearly tripled since the previous opening date of 2009. The project’s planners hope to save money, however, by demolishing the existing, nearby pedestrian span at Rector Place, before the new bridge opens.
The West Thames pedestrian bridge is intended to be a permanent replacement for the Rector Place span, which was erected as a “temporary” crossing after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (The Rector Place bridge was originally slated to be demolished within two years of its opening, but instead celebrated its 14th anniversary in August.)
The new bridge will stretch diagonally across the intersection of West and West Thames Streets, from the southwest corner on the Battery Park City side, to the northeast corner on the Financial District side, near the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, where a new residential tower is currently under construction.
At the September 6 meeting of the Battery Park City Committee of Community Board 1 (CB1), two government officials and one consultant presented updated plans for the bridge, which has been on the drawing boards since the early 1990s. Lynne Guey and Julia Melzer, both assistant vice presidents of the City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the agency overseeing the bridge’s development, and Matt Krenek, an engineer with Skanska USA (the outside firm managing the project) walked CB1 members through the current plan.
“Construction is going to begin very soon,” said Ms. Guey. Mr. Krenek summarized the design, noting that, “there will be elevators and staircases on both sides of the bridge, but no ramps.” He then recapped the new timeline, saying, “we hope to break ground in the next month or two, depending on permits being issued. We’ll be starting on the west side, in Battery Park City. At the same time, we’ll begin work in the median of West Street. And then, hopefully, at the beginning of next year, we’ll start on the east approach.”
“At the same time,” Mr. Krenek continued, “we’ll be constructing the bridge truss itself, off-site. We hope to be erecting it in the summer of next year and have bridge finished by the first quarter of 2018.” He added that during construction, part of the pedestrian walkway that runs alongside West Street would be closed and used as a staging ground for construction equipment, although the adjacent bike path would remain open.
When the EDC’s Ms. Melzer added that demolition of the existing pedestrian bridge at Rector Place was slated to begin in the third quarter of 2017, CB1 member Tammy Meltzer said, “we are on record that demolition of the old bridge not begin until the new bridge opens. And it concerns me that you would start demolition of an existing bridge without a safe crossing being open. It is critical that you do not take down old bridge until the new one is up and functional, including handicapped access.”
Jeff Mihok, co-chair of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee concurred, saying, “it doesn’t make any sense to me to demolish a bridge six months before new bridge is up and running. There’s a park here and a school here, and there’s no way to get kids safely across without a bridge. I don’t know what the motivation is.”
Ms. Guey replied, “it’s a consideration for our project budget and trying to maximize the efficiencies for staffing and mobilization on the site.”
CB1’s Ms. Meltzer retorted, “it’s a dangerous choice, to jeopardize the community because there is no safe passage.”
Ms. Guey answered, “we’re meeting with Battery Park City Authority on that.”
Ninfa Segarra, chair of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee observed, “the Authority is not always the best judge of what’s beneficial to the community, but you’re hearing from people who’ve been involved with this issue for years, who have a real sense of what would be best for the community and its safety.”
When EDC’s Ms. Melzer displayed a list of project stakeholders that included 11 government agencies, three private companies, and one real estate developer, Battery Park City resident Mindy Kassover noted that, “your list does not mention residents, or the community, as stakeholders.”
Mr. Krenek replied, “duly noted.”
CB1 member Tom Berton asked about the budget for maintaining the bridge once it is completed, noting that the elevator at the east end of the Rector Place pedestrian bridge has suffered from chronic repair problems, which have resulted in the lift being out of service for more than six months of each year, going back to the start of this decade.
The EDC’s Ms. Melzer said, “the Battery Park City Authority will maintain the bridge once it is finished.” The Authority also has responsibility for maintaining the Rector Place pedestrian bridge.
Although plans for a pedestrian span at West Thames stretch back decades, the most recent version of the proposal dates from the mid-2000s, when the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) proposed to pay for the bridge itself, and have it open by the first day of school at the newly built P.S./I.S. 276 in 2009. But the City (which must approve major capital expenses by the BPCA) refused to allow the Authority to spend the $18 million the bridge was then projected to cost.
The plan was revived in 2010, when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) agreed to fund $20 million of the bridge’s budget, which by then had grown to $23 million, with the BPCA to cover the rest. At that time, the bridge had a projected opening date of late-2014, but a succession of designs and changes caused the project to languish. In 2013, the discussion began again, by which time the budget had inflated to a projected $27 million. In 2014, both the LMDC and BPCA agreed to move ahead on funding the bridge, with the proviso that the City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which is overseeing the project, agree to cover any costs beyond a newly topped up budget of $27.5 million budget. The EDC resisted, which led to an additional, year-long impasse. When the LMDC returned to considering the West Thames bridge project, in November, 2015, the budget remained $27.5 million, which was to be split between the LMDC (contributing $20 million) and the BPCA (contributing $7.5 million).
But the discussion at the September 6 meeting of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee was preceded by the most recent LMDC review of project, during its June 22 board meeting. At this session, the agency’s board authorized a newly inflated budget of $45.1 million. This means that the projected cost of the bridge increased by $17.6 million in the seventh months between November, 2015, and the LMDC’s June board meeting. An LMDC memorandum prepared for the June meeting dryly noted that, “representatives from City Hall have indicated that such budget increases reflect current market trends across the City on public projects.” The document did not give the names of these representatives, or offer any further explanation for the sudden 64 percent increase in the project’s cost.
Assuming the West Thames bridge project adheres to its latest budget, it will (at a total length of 230 feet) cost slightly more than $196,000 per linear foot, or approximately $15,673 per inch. But further budget increases or cost overruns could push that figure well past $200,000 per linear foot, or more. (For comparison, the new Tappan Zee Bridge project, in the Hudson Valley, is costing approximately $244,000 per linear foot, but that bridge is eight lanes wide, rather than the 16-foot width of the West Thames pedestrian bridge.)
Under the new budget, the LMDC will increase its contribution to the West Thames pedestrian bridge project by $13 million (for a total of $33 million), while the BPCA will up its subsidy from $7.5 million to $8.25 million. The EDC has also found $3.8 million in federal highway funds to cover the cost of demolishing the existing Rector Place pedestrian bridge. (This figure is $300,000 more than the bridge cost of build in 2002.)
According to the memorandum prepared for the LMDC’s June board meeting, the agency intends to find the additional $13 million for the West Thames bridge project by reducing allocations it had planned for other public amenities. Among the programs slated to be cut is the LMDC’s allocation for “New York City Parks and Open Space,” which will be reduced from $19.5 million to $11.6 million.