On July 26, this 350-foot steel-span bridge made its way via barge to its final destination: replacing New York City's Willis Avenue Bridge, a 109-year-old structure. Photo: New York City DOT

By: Jenni Spinner

New York City's Willis Avenue Bridge is unique. Rather than raising and lowering as many other river bridges do, this 109-year-old structure opens on a pivot, allowing boats and barges to pass through on the Harlem River. Perhaps even more unique, however, is the way New York City DOT moved the recently revamped swing bridge's replacement span structure — by floating it down the river under the Brooklyn Bridge.

On July 26, the 350-foot span completed its historic journey. The bridge — which had been assembled in Coeymans, N.Y., then docked in a Jersey City, N.J., facility — traveled onto the East River atop two barges, and arrived at the bridge site with a U.S. Coast Guard escort. Thousands of interested observers — including NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan — looked on as the 2,400-ton steel structure traveled down the river to its final destination on the Harlem River.

“The arrival of this bridge has been a magnificent riverside sight in recent weeks, and its installation is an engineering marvel,” says Sadik-Khan. “Investments in our infrastructure rarely appear so dramatically, but it's a fitting entrance for an asset that will serve New Yorkers every day for years to come.”

NYC DOT decided upon the water-borne transportation method because moving the span via truck or trailer would have been problematic at best, stopping traffic at several points along the way. However, schlepping it by way of waterway, while relatively slow and somewhat show-stopping, will lead to less inconvenience on the part of motorists — from the time of its river transport to its final placement, the bridge will never be completely closed to traffic.

The fact that the bridge is never shutting down 100% should be music to many a commuter's ear. NYC DOT estimates that more than 70,000 motorists traveling to and from Harlem and South Bronx will use it on a daily basis. The revamped bridge is expected to eliminate tight turns and include driver lanes wider than the previous structure, as well as enhanced pedestrian paths and a concrete deck (the previous bridge included open-steel grating).

The new span also is expected to facilitate better connection with nearby roadways, including a direct connection with the northbound Major Deegan Expressway and an improved connection with northbound FDR Drive. Once the new bridge is open, the old span will be gradually spirited away over the course of several weeks.

The total cost of replacing the Willis Avenue Bridge stands at approximately $612 million. The bridge was secured in place in early August and is expected to be opened to four lanes of traffic in October. The replacement project is part of more than $5 billion in bridge improvements pledged and performed under Mayor Michael Bloomberg since 2002. The improvements include comprehensive rehabilitation and repainting of all of the city-owned bridges on the East River.

“The new Willis Avenue Bridge is the latest example of the progress our administration has made in rebuilding the city's infrastructure,” says the mayor. “These investments will help keep our city strong through this century and beyond.”

— Jenni Spinner is a Chicago-based freelancer and former associate editor of PUBLIC WORKS.