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Wed May 14, 2014

The Mystery Of Tappan Zee: Why Build A Bridge Where The River's Wide?

Originally published on Wed May 14, 2014 6:59 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, there's a curious fact about the Tappan Zee Bridge that President Obama was standing next to today. It's located at a spot where it seems to make the least economic sense to place a bridge - one of the widest parts of the Hudson River. Three years ago, David Kestenbaum of our Planet Money team dug into this. Here's an encore presentation of his report.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: Todd Ottman was an assistant managing editor for the Encyclopedia of New York State. He remembers when it got time to do the T entries. He'd grown up in the area and always wondered why the Tappan Zee seemed to be built in the wrong place.

TODD OTTMAN: Always. Every day, actually, my bedroom window, as a teenager, I'd get up in the morning and there was the bridge. Why was it there at one of the widest points in the river?

KESTENBAUM: Ottman looked around - for a historian, an expert.

OTTMAN: We just, we couldn't find anybody.

KESTENBAUM: And historical documents weren't much help either. I thought there might be an engineering reason why the Tappan Zee was built where it was. Maybe the river is shallower there. So, I went to see the bridge with a forensic engineer, Robert Hintersteiner.

ROBERT HINTERSTEINER: You see the super-structure, steelwork.

KESTENBAUM: That is a long bridge.

HINTERSTEINER: 3.2 miles. Yes, it is.

KESTENBAUM: As an engineer, where would you build this bridge?

HINTERSTEINER: Personally, I would build it narrowest point, but not the longest point.

KESTENBAUM: How narrow is narrowest point?

HINTERSTEINER: One mile.

KESTENBAUM: Hintersteiner says this is a lousy place to build a bridge. The river floor is mucky. If they'd built this at a narrower part of the river, would we be in this mess?

HINTERSTEINER: No, due to the fact that they would have hit solid rock.

KESTENBAUM: Reading through old newspaper clippings from the 1940s and '50s, the plot thickens. The bridge, it turns out, was part of a much larger, very-high-stakes project - one of the first highway systems, the New York State Thruway. Again, Todd Ottman.

OTTMAN: This was a limited access highway that you could do high speeds on.

KESTENBAUM: What we think of today as a modern highway. But back then, the idea that you could go that far without hitting an intersection or a traffic light...

OTTMAN: Right, right, right. Yes. It didn't exist then.

KESTENBAUM: The old newspaper clippings also reveal something suspicious. It turns out there was an alternate proposal for a bridge at a narrower spot a little further south. The proposal was put forward by top engineers at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But it got killed by this man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

THOMAS E. DEWEY: The Thruway will span a new six-lane bridge across the Hudson River between...

KESTENBAUM: Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York. This is a speech from 1954.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

DEWEY: The completed thruway will be world's greatest highway, the longest toll facility...

KESTENBAUM: I called historians and libraries and historical societies - no one seemed to know for sure why Governor Dewey did what he did. And then, I found Jim Doig.

JIM DOIG: My name is Jim Doig and I'm professor emeritus at Princeton University and currently also teaching at Dartmouth College.

KESTENBAUM: Doig interviewed some of the key government officials involved before they died. And he found out why the Tappan Zee Bridge was built where it was. The answer? Money. The bridge, remember, was a centerpiece of a gigantic highway system. And tolls on the bridge were going to raise a lot of money. Governor Dewey wanted that money to help pay for the rest of the thruway. And - here's the catch - if he had let the bridge be built further south, where the river narrows, it would have been in Port Authority territory and the Port Authority, not the state of New York, would have gotten the revenue. Port Authority's territory weirdly is defined as a big circle centered around, what else, the Statue of Liberty.

DOIG: Twenty-five-mile radius of Statue of Liberty.

KESTENBAUM: The bridge is just a smidge outside of it. Jim Doig says about two-tenths of one mile. Governor Dewey put the bridge about as close as he could to the line.

DOIG: It's right there.

KESTENBAUM: He was stuck with a three-mile bridge.

DOIG: He was definitely stuck with a three-mile bridge, unless he wanted to go to a four-mile bridge a little further north.

(LAUGHTER)

KESTENBAUM: That is how the Tappan Zee Bridge ended up where it is. And the replacement bridge is going in the same spot. Towns and highways have grown up here. So, we're stuck with a long bridge at one of the widest spots in the river. David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.