An engineering marvel is nearing completion outside the windows of Lower Manhattan residents. The Bayonne Bridge, the longest steel-arch span in the world at the time of its 1931 opening (and now holder of the fifth-place title), just got a lot loftier.
This is the result of developments half a world away — specifically, in Panama, where the eponymous canal has been widened and deepened (and the bridges over it raised) to allow a new generation of super-sized vessels to pass through.
These developments left New York Harbor — and particularly its New Jersey adjuncts, Port Elizabeth and Port Newark — with a sinking feeling, because the ships that will soon haul much of the world’s trade were effectively locked out of both by the Bayonne Bridge’s original deck height of 151 feet above an average high tide. (So-called “Neo Panamax” ships can be as tall as 190 feet.)
Enter the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which commissioned a project to raise that deck an additional 64 feet, bringing the Bayonne Bridge’s clearance to 215 feet, which will give it a comfortable margin of surplus space for a generation to come.
The Bayonne Bridge connects the city of Bayonne, New Jersey with Staten Island and passes over the Kill Van Kull (Dutch for “”channel by the ridge”) that connects the upper bay of New York Harbor to Newark Bay.
Although the span’s rehabilitation will not be completed until 2019, it reached a major milestone in February when the Bayonne Bridge (which had been intermittently closed to traffic for three years) finally reopened with one lane in each direction. The overall cost of the upgrade project is budgeted at $1.3 billion, which is roughly 100 times the $13 million it cost to build the original bridge in its entirety 86 years ago. (To be fair, that figure comes to $181,000,000 when adjusted for inflation, which means that upgrading the bridge set the taxpayers back only about seven times what it had cost to build from scratch.)
But that money may prove to be wise investment. The initial price tag for upping the game at the Bayonne Bridge is believed to have created or supported more than 2,500 jobs in the vicinity, along with more than $250,000 million in local wages. And that’s just the beginning. The Port Authority estimates that the Bayonne Bridge upgrade will directly spur more than $1.6 billion on economic activity, while the Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over waterways such the Kill Van Kull) projects that the nation as a whole will reap $3.3 billion in benefits from the heightened bridge.
In the 1950s, containerization revolutionized cargo transportation, and as a result shippers embarked on a arms race of sorts, with vessels perpetually increasing in size and height. This led to the modernization of the Panama Canal, which triggered the Bayonne Bridge’s refurbishment. At the former deck height, cargo ships holding 9,000 containers were the largest that could pass beneath. Now, those carrying up to 12,000 containers are welcome.
New York is in perpetual competition with other eastern seaboard ports for the global maritime shipping business and Newark Terminal is one of the largest in the region. In order to stay on an even keel, access was essential and the Bayonne Bridge’s original deck height was an impediment to growth.
This is crucial for more than just New York and New Jersey, because more than one in ten cargo ships entering American ports pass beneath the Bayonne Bridge, and the ports they service directly or indirectly create more than a quarter of a million jobs around the nation, with more than $11 billion in annual wages.