Jeff Sellars looked out of his car window on the way to George Washington Bridge and noticed something strange about the concrete pillars on the short underground highway known as the Trans-Manhattan Expressway last month.
They looked even worse than usual.
“It was just a whim. I thought, ‘What! It looks interesting,'” Sellars, a 49-year-old housing improvement contractor from Locust Valley, Long Island, said of the crumbling concrete.
What worried him most were the four towering apartment buildings located at the top of the highway in Washington Heights, he said. As someone with a background in engineering, the idea that the buildings lacked the support worried him.
His concern prompted him to post the photos of the bars on his personal Facebook page. He began the post by asking if the “structural integrity” of the highway and the four buildings that make up Bridge Apartments had been “compromised”, and expressed that he was not sure he felt safe enough to drive under it, knowing what these pillars looked like.
Sellars did not expect his post to go viral, but it did. The picture appeared on Twitter and in Upper Manhattan Facebook groups. A person named Zion Love – who had no connection to Sellar – even launched a Change.org petition in response to the photos, demanding answers as to why these columns looked so dilapidated and what the city would do about them.
But according to the agency responsible for this stretch of highway that connects Harlem River Drive with the George Washington Bridge, there was and is no cause for concern.
Officials from the Port of New York and New Jersey told THE CITY that the pillars look like they do because of the ongoing work to repair parts of the highway and bridge – aptly named the “Restore the George” project, which began in 2016 .
The non-load-bearing concrete enclosure around the steel columns that supports the George Washington Bridge Bus Station and the four buildings over the Trans Manhattan Expressway is being replaced as part of the Port Authority’s ongoing ‘2 billion’ Restoring the George ‘program as a full rehabilitating and modernizing the 90-year-old George Washington Bridge, ”said Amanda Kwan, a spokeswoman for PANYNJ.
Councilor Carmen de la Rosa (D-Manhattan) conveyed the same message from the Port Authority in an attempt to allay the fears of many residents who call those buildings home. However, even with this statement from the Port Authority and de la Rosa, Sellars’ post continues to get new comments online from people who are concerned about the appearance of the columns.
Zhan Guo, an associate professor of urban planning and transportation at New York University’s Wagner School, said the images of these pillars and the condition of aging bridges and roads in the city in general, should be in the minds of residents and officials.
“It looks very worrying. The story is pretty clear. I think we need to pay more attention to this issue,” Guo said. “These are things that will take five or 10 years to fix, but based on these images, it’s something that should happen tomorrow.”
Similar problems affect the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, with road salt and constant wear, causing dangerous cracks in the concrete pavements that protect supporting steel bars. The city urgently needs a plan to rehabilitate BQE – or risk having to ban trucks from driving on it.
Yet while the social virality of Sellars’ post helped get a quick response from officials, New Yorkers may not always trust the power of the Internet when they have questions or concerns about crumbling urban infrastructure.
The roads of an old city
The roads and bridges in New York City are presumed to be evaluated every two years by either the City or State Department of Transportation or the New York State Thruway Authority under state and federal law.
Both agencies, along with the MTA, inspect their own bridges and roads as part of compliance mandated by the State of New York. The Port Authority, which oversees the George Washington Bridge and Trans-Manhattan Expressway, does not have to comply with DOT inspection standards, but they are required to report serious results from their inspections to the state within a week.
According to the latest DOT and NYSTA report from May, there were 20 bridges and roads controlled by one or both of these authorities, which were ranked as being in “poor” condition out of the 244 in Manhattan. A road on the bad rankings includes a ramp into George Washington Bridge.
Across the five boroughs, 107 roads and bridges are rated as bad out of the 1,477 that make up the DOT, NYSTA, and MTA jurisdictions. Queens has the most with 31 ranked as poor, and Staten Island has the least with only three in that category.
Streetsblog compiled earlier this year a complete and somewhat alarming list of these dilapidated roads and bridges. The featured roads were between 60 and 134 years old.
The “bad” designation indicates that there is significant deterioration on a bridge’s tires, supports or other important components, according to the agencies. For roads, this means that there are visible signs of deterioration, potholes and crashes in the pavement surface.
A January report by TRIP, a Washington-based nonprofit focusing on transportation research sponsored by insurance companies, unions and various companies that support efficient transit technology, found that 10% of New York State bridges are classified as “bad,” which 11. worst located in the country.
“Inadequate transportation investment, which will result in impaired transportation facilities and reduced access, will adversely affect New York’s economic competitiveness and quality of life,” the report noted.
The restoration project with the aim of repairing larger parts of GWB began in 2016 and is expected to be completed within the next few years, according to the port authority. Kwan, the agency’s spokesman, said the long timeline was needed to accommodate heavy traffic through the highway.
Do not panic – but what can you do?
So you spotted a crooked piece of the cityscape. But who is the right person to call and where can you report your concern?
When reporting a crumbling road or bridge, it is an important step to know who is responsible for its maintenance.
If you can not find the right agency to call, two good places to get help are your local community board or through the staff of the constituent services at your councilor’s office.
According to de la Rosa, Community Board 12, which represents the area affected by this construction work, had been briefed on the GWB project, but she noted that it is important to provide updates to the neighborhood as often as possible so that panic does not recur.
All city councils in the city have meetings where residents and other local stakeholders can express concerns or ask questions about anything that pertains to the neighborhood. Residents can call their boards outside of meeting dates and times to talk about their concerns.
De la Rosa said she is happy to be “tagged” on posts such as the highway for a quick response, and appreciates calls to her local contact – professional staff whose job it is to listen to and assist residents of a popularly elected official district.
Every councilor in the city has a similar point of contact. While some are more responsive than others, it is the most official way to connect with a city representative.
A list of these contacts can be found on the Council’s member page.
Of course, it can work, as it did in Sellars’ case, to take pictures of dilapidated underdogs and post them on social media, in addition to tagging the right authorities and elected officials who represent them.
De la Rosa said she believes agencies and officials have a duty to help voters pay more attention to what is happening right under their feet.
“We want to make sure they refresh the community and try their best to process the information,” she said.
Gary Fernandez, 30, a lifelong resident of one of the four towers that make up Bridge Apartments in Washington Heights, said he was not worried about the pillars before they went viral.
“When that guy posted it on IG – everyone started reacting to it because people don’t notice it when you drive past. You’re trying to get home, probably stuck in traffic,” he said.
Of course, there is another opportunity to get answers about the city’s built environment and possible problems: Address the CITY with questions and concerns at [email protected] or send tips to [email protected]
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