The Bayonne Bridge is one of the four bridges that connect New York City’s Staten Island with the state of New Jersey. Specifically, it leads to Bayonne, NJ, thus explaining its name. Completed in 1931, the Bayonne Bridge was a wonder of engineering in those times, as shown by how it became the longest steel arch bridge in the world at 1,675 feet before holding the position until 1977. Even now, it remains important because it spans the Kill Van Kull, one of the most utilized waterways in the Port of New York and New Jersey.
How the Bayonne Bridge Came to Be
Waterways have enormous economic importance. As a result, it is extremely common for governments to get into disputes over their use. The state of New York and the state of New Jersey were by no means immune to this, which created a host of issues for the public. Eventually, the two agreed to form the joint venture now called the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 1921. This organization had ambitious goals in mind. For instance, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey wanted to make regional transportation more efficient. Unsurprisingly, that included carrying out long-term infrastructure building, which it could do better than its predecessors because it was more insulated from political control and political pressure.
Both the Goethals Bridge and the Outerbridge Crossing opened in 1928. The Port Authority started building the third bridge connecting Staten Island with the state of New Jersey in the same year. There was some debate over whether the third crossing should be a bridge or a tunnel. In the end, the Port Authority went with the third bridge designed by Othmar Ammann. Said individual was born near the Swiss town of Schaffhausen. Reportedly, he was inspired to become an engineer by a bridge in that town. Whatever the case, Ammann emigrated to the United States after graduating from Zürich’s Polytechnikum. There, he would make his name by analyzing the disastrous collapse of the Quebec Bridge that killed 75 people in 1907. Subsequently, Ammann got the chance to work on the Bayonne Bridge plus other well-known projects throughout the United States.
Despite his success, Ammann remained humble, as shown by his statement that he was “lucky” that his engineering never resulted in any tragedies. That sounds excessive. Still, it becomes much more understandable when one realizes that he was a pioneer in his time, meaning he couldn’t have been sure that the theoretical calculations would have worked out well when translated to the real world. To get an idea of just how remarkable the Bayonne Bridge was, consider how it weighed just 16,000 short tons while the Sydney Harbor Bridge weighed 37,000 short tons even though it is longer than its sister bridge.
The building of the Bayonne Bridge finished in 1931. That was noteworthy for a couple of reasons. One, it did so ahead of schedule. Two, it did so without using up its budget. Granted, the building of the Bayonne Bridge did discard plans for stone sheathing because of Great Depression-related cost concerns, which presumably played a part in those outcomes. Still, the speed was impressive, particularly since the workers had to get the job done without blocking traffic through the Kill Van Kull. For that matter, the loss of the stone sheathing hasn’t prevented the Bayonne Bridge from becoming one of the iconic bridges of the region.
Its Performance in the 20th Century
There isn’t much to be said about the performance of the Bayonne Bridge in the 20th century. It did its job and it did its job well. At most, one can point out some incidents that happened close to the Bayonne Bridge without being related to the Bayonne Bridge itself. For example, it turned out that uranium had once been stored in a warehouse situated close to the Bayonne Bridge. Some of that uranium had spilled, which is why the site is now a federal Superfund site. Likewise, the sheer number of ships passing through the Kill Van Kull means accidents are inevitable in the vicinity of the Bayonne Bridge. One particularly well-known example was the SS Texaco Massachusetts running into the MV Alva Cape in 1966, which was terrible luck because the latter was carrying a few million tons of naphtha. A total of 33 people died in the initial accident. Later, four more people died while pumping out the remaining naphtha in the MV Alva Cape. In the end, the authorities decided to just tow away the burning hulk before blasting it beneath the waves using artillery fire.
The Raising of the Roadway
In recent decades, the Bayonne Bridge has seen another remarkable feat of construction. Originally, the bridge had a clearance of 151 feet. Work was done to give it a new clearance of 215 feet. What made the work particularly impressive is that the workers managed to finish raising the Bayonne Bridge’s roadbed in 2019 with minimal interruption to either landbound traffic or water-borne traffic, which rightfully earned the project an award from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2020.
As for why that was necessary, the answer lies in the Panama Canal. To be exact, the Panama Canal completed new locks that enabled it to handle even bigger ships of the New Panamax classification in 2016. The Bayonne Bridge already had issues handling the bigger cargo ships in use before this. If the Port Authority left it unchanged, that would have been a serious blow to port traffic because that would have resulted in the ships of the New Panamax classification being forced to head elsewhere. In other words, the raising of the Bayonne Bridge’s roadway was one of the changes needed to keep the Port of New York and New Jersey competitive, which has enormous economic benefits for the region and the country.