A Bridge No Longer So Humble, at $600 Million
The Willis Avenue Bridge, which was completed in 1901, cost about $1.6 million to build. A planned
replacement structure will cost the city quite a bit more.
By WILLIAM NEUMAN
Published: March 31, 2007
The Willis Avenue Bridge is hardly the most recognizable or the most graceful of the city’s many bridges, but it will soon gain a distinction as one of the most expensive.
The city has long planned to replace the Willis Avenue Bridge, a 3,212-foot-long, 106-year-old structure spanning the Harlem River, with a new one, just to the south. But when officials at the Transportation Department opened the bids on March 8 they got a shock. The two bids submitted came in at $612 million and $637 million — each $200 million or so greater than estimated.
Transportation Department engineers had projected a cost of $417 million.
Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall said that the city had no choice but to go ahead with the work. The existing structure, a swing bridge that opens to allow ships to pass, often requires costly maintenance because of its age. And the ramps are configured in a way that has made it a site of frequent accidents.
“It’s like having an old house and you have to keep on fixing the stuff versus having a new house,” said Ms. Weinshall, who is stepping aside as transportation commissioner next month after six years on the job. She said that construction was likely to start around the end of the year and that the project would take five years to complete.
When it is done, Ms. Weinshall said, the Willis Avenue Bridge will be the most expensive bridge ever built by her department.
But the reconstruction of some bridges has cost more, and New York State and New Jersey spent more, when inflation is taken into account, for the George Washington Bridge, which was completed in 1931. The 6,016-foot-long Brooklyn Bridge, which was financed by what were then the separate cities of Brooklyn and New York, cost about $16 million to build. It was finished in 1883. In today’s dollars, taking inflation into account, that would be about $300 million, according to the MeasuringWorth.com Web site.
Of course, were the city to build a new Brooklyn Bridge today, the price would reach into the billions. The city has spent more than $3 billion over the last two decades to rehabilitate the East River bridges and is in the midst of an $829 million project to reconstruct the Manhattan Bridge, according to information on the Transportation Department’s Web site.
The George Washington Bridge, built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, cost $60 million, which works out to more than $800 million in today’s dollars.
But no new bridge has begun its life with a budget approaching that of the Willis Avenue project, which also includes the cost of building ramps to the surrounding roadways, a part of which will be reimbursed by the state.
The Willis Avenue Bridge had much more humble origins. It cost $1.6 million to build and was opened in 1901. Last year, as the city prepared to seek bids on the new project, it offered to sell the existing bridge for $1 to anyone who would take it away and preserve it at another site rather than having to turn it into scrap. But the logistics of removing the bridge were too complicated; there were no takers.
Kay Sarlin, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, said that about 5 percent of the contract amount, or about $30 million, represents the cost of demolishing the old bridge. She said the contractor would dispose of it, most likely by selling it as scrap steel.
The stone masonry that is part of the bridge’s structure will be recycled in city parks, she said, and much of it will go to the new Brooklyn Bridge park that is planned along the East River in Brooklyn.
The Transportation Department is not the only public agency to be hit with unexpected cost increases in its major construction projects.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently began a review of its construction activity in search of ways to cut rapidly ballooning costs that have led it to cancel some large projects.
Ms. Weinshall said the price of steel has skyrocketed in the last two years and the cost of fuel has also soared.
And she pointed to the large number of major construction projects that are either going on or about to start in the region, including the World Trade Center, the Fulton Street Transit Center and the Second Avenue subway, as well as the many office buildings and apartment towers that have been going up.
“This is the strongest construction market in New York City in a long, long time,” said Richard T. Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress, an umbrella group that represents contractors, developers and unions.
“There’s a lot of work out there and there’s a lot of work to come and the pool of contractors is fairly limited and they just don’t have the capacity to do all that work.”
Chris Ward, managing director of the General Contractors Association, said that with plenty of work available today, contractors were often reluctant to do large projects for public agencies. The agencies can be slow to pay, he said, and often place the risk of delays and engineering problems on the contractor’s shoulders.
That the two bids on the Willis Avenue project were so close to each other, he said, shows that they were a more accurate reflection of the construction market than the estimate made by the city.
Another consequence of the glut of projects is that fewer companies bid on each job.
The Willis Avenue Bridge, a 3,212-foot-long, 106-year-old structure, will
be replaced by a new structure at a cost of more than $600 million.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company