New York's Tappan Zee Bridge to live on as artificial reef

The decrepit Hudson River span will at long last sleep with the fishes.

It's safe to assume that motorists who regularly traversed the old Tappan Zee Bridge are thrilled to no longer be driving across it.

And considering the bridge's notoriety, it's also safe to assume that many of these motorists would like to see the Tappan Zee destroyed, annihilated, blown to smithereens in a most spectacular and most public fashion. (It finally closed in October 2017 after the first span of a replacement bridge opened to traffic.)

Instead, massive chunks of the "functionally obsolete" cantilever bridge, which for over 60 years carried seven narrow lanes of the New York State Thruway across the Hudson River 25 miles north of New York City, are now being dismantled, piece by piece, and loaded into barges. From there, the bridge segments will be given a quiet burial at sea off the coast of Long Island.

True, this drawn-out deconstruction process won't necessarily provide catharsis to the millions of motorists emotionally terrorized — so many headaches, so much anxiety — over the years by a perpetually congested and accident-prone bridge that even one of the nation's top infrastructure experts dubbed "the scary of scaries."

The Tappan Zee Bridge, will, however, provide an outmoded work of mid-20th century infrastructure with the opportunity to do good in its afterlife as part of a biodiversity-boosting artificial reef network.

Writes the New York Times:

By recycling the Tappan Zee, New York State has not only found an affordable and practical way to dispose of some of its massive parts, but is also significantly expanding a state-managed artificial reef program that aims to provide new habitats to increase the diversity of marine life, promote recreational fishing and diving and bolster economic development.

Hastily constructed on a modest budget in the 1950s, the Tappan Zee Bridge was designed to last 50 years maximum — an ill-sited quick fix. Yet as the shoulder-less bridge — at 3-miles-long, it was the longest in New York state — reached and then surpassed the 50-year mark, it began showing signs of deterioration and gained a (somewhat exaggerated) reputation for being a ticking time bomb. Because if there's anything more aggravating than being stuck in traffic, it's being stuck in traffic on a bridge that could collapse at any given moment. (Although deemed "deficient" by state transportation officials, the bridge was never officially classified as being structurally unsound.)

Later, as plans for a replacement bridge dragged on, the dreaded "hold-your-breath" bridge became much more of an obvious — and embarrassing — liability for the state. It was often cited as the "poster bridge" for crumbling infrastructure across America. For the over 130,000 daily motorists traveling between Westchester and Rockland counties, there wasn't much of an alternative.

Aerial view of Tappan Zee Bridge, New York Completed in 1955, the original Tappan Zee Bridge, which crosses the Hudson River at its second widest point, was never meant to last as long or carry as much traffic as it did. (Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

A 3-mile nightmare goes to heaven

Now that the new Tappan Zee Bridge, a $4 billion cable-stayed affair with a fancy LED lighting scheme and not enough rapid transit options, is partially open, attention has shifted to the fate of the decaying eyesore that still stands just to the south.

As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (the new Tappan Zee Bridge is officially named after his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo), made clear at a recent conference, even bad bridges deserve to go to bridge heaven.

Relays the Times:

'It's coming down, as you know, and it's a large structure so it begs the philosophical question: What does a bridge do in life after it is finished its life as a bridge? What is the afterlife? Is there a bridge heaven?'

'Well, there is a bridge heaven,' Mr. Cuomo continued. 'Bridge heaven is you spend all your life above the water serving people and then you go to bridge heaven' — which he added — 'is you go below the water.'

While some might argue that the Tappan Zee belongs in bridge hell, it's hard to find issue with the manner in which the bridge is being repurposed.

As the bridge continues to be taken apart in the coming months, large segments will be transported via barge to Long Island where they'll be strategically sunk at six artificial reef sites. As the Times reports, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)'s Marine Artificial Reef Program maintains 12 artificial reefs: eight in the Atlantic Ocean and two apiece in the Great South Bay and Long Island Sound. Decommissioned tugboats, barges and dinghies that once serviced the Eerie Canal as well as scrap metal and steel pipes salvaged from state transportation projects will join the old bridge parts as artificial reef material.

Transporting and sinking sections of the Tappan Zee Bridge and other materials comes with a price tag of $5 million, a cost partially covered by Tappan Zee Constructors, the private entity tasked with building the replacement bridge. Requiring 33 barges to transport an estimated 43,200 cubic yards of recycled remnants from the Tappan Zee alone, it's the largest artificial reef expansion project in state history.

Once these plus-sized hunks of concrete, steel and other materials settle into their watery graves, they'll boost marine biodiversity by providing crucial new habitat to a wide variety of marine life including sea bass, fluke, cod, blackfish, mussels and even crabs and lobsters. (All materials are cleaned before being sunk as to prevent possible environmental contamination.) The DEC notes that within time "the structure teems with sea life, creating a habitat very similar to a natural reef."

Parts of old Tappan Zee that won't be used as artificial reef-building materials will be sent to recycling center and scrap yards; some salvaged materials will even be reused in new infrastructure projects.

Old NY subway cars being used as artificial reef material In addition to boats, old bridges and construction debris, New York City's old subway cars are used to build out artificial reefs. (Photo: Final Trip)

A new home for 'other' New Yorkers

Some New Yorkers, including Long Island charter boat captain Joe Paradiso, believe that going the artificial reef route is the most beneficial when it comes to finding new uses for old bridges.

"Instead of going to a recycling plant or somewhere else, it's a much better use," Paradiso tells the Times, noting that the expanded reefs will not only benefit local fisherman and divers but the small, local businesses that they support including restaurants, hotels and bait and tackle stores. "Some of these reefs are just depleted and in need of more materials."

Bill Ulfelder, a scuba diver and executive director of the New York branch of the Nature Conservancy, also mentions another locally produced form of waste that's better off being sunk into the ocean than collecting rust in a junkyard: old subway cars.

"These iconic symbols of New York — subway cars and now the Tappan Zee — can keep on living," he tells the Times. "Now they're home for fishes, crustaceans and shellfish — other New Yorkers."

It's worth noting that in the process of taking down the old Tappan Zee Bridge and repurposing it into a home for undersea critters, two non-undersea critters that call the bridge home, a pair of peregrine falcons, have found themselves facing imminent displacement.

However, as the Journal News reports, the bridge's dismantling is being carried out in a most raptor-friendly manner.

Perched 400 feet above the Hudson in the old bridge's steel superstructure, the peregrines' nesting box — now protected from harm by a 100-foot buffer — will be left alone until after the chicks are hatched and safely leave the nest. And while the popular webcam that documents activity in the nesting box was removed ahead of the bridge's dismantling, experts are continuing to monitor the nest to ensure that all is safe for momma peregrine and her soon-to-hatch chicks.

In the meantime, wildlife experts have established a secondary nesting box atop a span of the new bridge, which the male falcon has reportedly been checking out. Officials hope that the male's discovery of the new nest means the pair will be encouraged to return next season, even though their old egg-laying haunt will have, by that time, vanished into thin air — or, more accurately, the bottom of the sea.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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