Unlike many of the other river crossings
designed to encourage
the growth of this city of islands
, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge was actually delayed due to fear
s that the increased traffic
would ruin the "character
" of the still-rural borough
. The span
was proposed originally in 1905, and indeed developers were excited by the opportunity and planned upscale
neighborhoods on Long Island
near where the bridge would land. Although the neighborhoods were built, local residents
of the pre-existing communities managed to keep the bridge out of even the planning stage for nearly 25 years.
However, in 1929, more powerful forces set to work. The Regional Plan Association, formed in 1922, wanted this crossing to provide access to their planned "circumferential loop" of New York City highways (of which the then under construction George Washington Bridge would also play a part), and to allow motorists to cross to the mainland and points north without having to pass through the more populated sections of the city. The next year, an even more powerful voice had its say.
Robert Moses wanted this bridge even more than the RPA. Originally, he wanted it because it would allow people from the Bronx and further north to visit his state parks on Long Island, and he didn't painstakingly create Jones Beach from the swamps of the south shore out of sheer magnanimity. But as the years progressed, so did Moses' reasons for wanting it.
His first major reason came in 1936 with the opening of his Triborough Bridge. The bridge was almost immediately swamped with motorists; Moses planned this crossing as a means to lighten the load on the former bridge, and to allow a dedicated Queens-Bronx connection. The second reason came in 1937, when the ground was broken to turn the private flying field on the north shore of Long Island into New York Municipal Airport. But the third and latest reason was probably the most important: Moses was selected as chair of the 1939-1940 World's Fair, and wanted to provide easy access to the fairgrounds.
Permission from the New York State Legislature to go ahead with the bridge was granted to Moses' Triborough Bridge Authority in early 1937. However, the early proponents of the bridge, the RPA, attempted to delay the bridge's construction until provisions were made to allow for future rail transit over the bridge. Moses dealt with these concerns in his usual fashion, and ground was broken on June 1, 1937.
Moses would become famous in later days for destroying homes and neighborhoods in the name of "progress". This project would be no exception. Ironically, however, the homes that Moses would condemn and destroy this time were located in Malba, Queens, one of the communities built at the turn of the century in anticipation of the increased population the bridge would bring.
Robert Moses needed this bridge built quickly, if it were to serve as a pathway to the World's Fair grounds in time for its 1939 opening. Moses selected master designer Othmar Ammann as chief engineer, and Ammann quickly made the decision pay off.
The two towers of the bridge were built in a mere 18 days, rising from piers built on the rock that lines the bottom of the East River. The towers were each designed as two closed-box columns with no diagonal cross-bracing (an Ammann innovation), connected twice by arched struts, one at deck level and one topping the towers. The flat-topped arch portal would become something of a trademark for Ammann in later days: the George Washington Bridge and parts of the Triborough Bridge already had the look, and many of his later bridges would share it. The anchorages also reflect the simplicity required by the design: shedding artistic embellishment, they simply follow the natural curve of the cables into the ground.
Another Ammann innovation that would later prove disastrous, albeit on the other side of the country, was the lack of trusses to stiffen the bridge. Ammann instead reinforced the deck with flexible steel-plate girders, aiming for a sleek, streamlined design in the Art Deco tradition. As with his earlier triumph, he felt that the sheer weight of the bridge would keep it steady in the wind. The tragedy that followed was the construction of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. This bridge was built in a similar style to the Whitestone, and even longer and slimmer. The famous collapse of the bridge mere months after its construction would lead to the addition of supporting trusswork to the Whitestone Bridge, although the bridge was open for four years before these trusses were added.
An amazing 23 months after the project was started, and six months ahead of schedule, the bridge was finished. Work completed on April 29, 1939, and the next day (which, coincidentally happened to be the opening day of the World's Fair) Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia opened the bridge to the public.
The aforementioned collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge led to further construction on the Whitestone. Despite Ammann's claims to the contrary, Moses ordered first that cable stays were to be attached, further anchoring the deck to the tops of the towers. Moses wanted to attach the cables to the base of the bridge, but was overruled by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Army required that the bridge maintain a certain clearance over the river, and the below-deck cables would reduce the clearance below acceptable minimums, so Moses would have to find another way. When a 1943 windstorm temporarily closed the bridge, Moses ordered that, even though it would detract from the aesthetics of the bridge, trusses would be immediately added to the bridge. As a result, the two pedestrian walkways on the bridge were eliminated, and the traffic lanes, increased from four to six, were widened. In 1988, a tuned mass damper, similar to those used in skyscrapers, would be added to the bridge to further counteract the oscillations all bridges feel in the wind.
Anchor to anchor, the bridge measures 3,770', with a main span of 2,300', making it the 23rd longest suspension bridge in the world. Including the approachways, the bridge is 7,140' in total. The two towers rise 377' over what is still technically the East River (before it widens into the Long Island Sound), and holds the six-lane deck 157' over mean high water by means of two cables, each 21 3/4" thick and nearly 4,000' long. It cost $19.7 million dollars to build, financed entirely by TBTA bonds (themselves backed by the steep 25 cent toll on the Triborough Bridge).
The bridge, like all of the former TBTA's crossings, is now run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The toll, as of this writing, is $4 each way, with E-Z Pass discounts. An average of 17,000 vehicles per day crossed the bridge in its first year; today, the number is closer to 110,000 per day. There is no non-vehicular access to the bridge; the Queens Surface Transit Corporation provides bicycle racks on the buses that cross the bridge.
Due to restrictions on commercial traffic, some of the approach roads to the bridge were upgraded in the late 1950s to "expressway" standards. Previously, trucks could only enter the bridge via dedicated ramps, for the approach highways were declared as "parkways" and all commercial traffic was prohibited. The bridge was also signed as part of Interstate 678 at this time, which it carries from the Bronx to its terminus in JFK Airport.
There is another irony attached to the bridge. The bridge is currently undergoing rehabilitation to bring it closer to its original design. The cable stays and metal trusses intended to support the bridge have also increased the tension on the supporting cables, being a load beyond what the bridge was intended to handle. Fiber reinforced plastic wind fairings will replace the trusses. The fairings are designed to offset much of the effect that wind has on the bridge, and will also be significantly lighter than the trusses.
Perhaps due to the brevity that New Yorkers are famed for, perhaps due to the fact that the Whitestone Expressway leads up to the bridge, or perhaps simply because the two other nearby bridges also go to the Bronx, the "Bronx" part of the name is usually dropped when referring to the bridge. A similar fate is is accrued by the Battery Tunnel, the Midtown Tunnel, and the Verrazano Bridge. There seems to be a resurgence in using the full name of the bridge, but that may just be occuring to this noder as a result of all the research.