The views from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which links the New York boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn, are some of the most spectacular in the city. Here, the protected waters of New York Harbor open up at the gateway to the Atlantic. Container ships and cruise vessels ply the waters beneath the graceful span, on their way to and from the open ocean. It is a beautiful sight to behold.
But the only people who get to see that view are speeding along in cars, having paid a $12 toll to cross what was, for many years, the longest suspension bridge in the world. The only time the bridge is open to pedestrians or bicyclists is during the New York City Marathon or the Five Boro Bike Tour.
The Verrazano, which opened in 1964, is one of the only major bridges in New York without bike or pedestrian footpaths, although such access was envisioned in the original design. Every few years, advocates bring up the topic yet again. In 1997, the city even went so far as to commission a plan for foot and bike paths, which would cost somewhere around $50 million in today’s dollars to implement, according to Streetsblog.
Lately, the idea of letting cyclists and pedestrians cross the mile-plus span has been revived yet again, this time as part of a region-wide vision called the Harbor Ring. The Harbor Ring would connect existing bike and pedestrian routes along the New York and New Jersey waterfronts in a sweeping 50-mile loop.
The Harbor Ring proposal is being advanced by the New York–based Transportation Alternatives advocacy group. It would link 28 miles of existing bike and pedestrian paths in Brooklyn, Staten Island, Manhattan, and New Jersey, along with 20 miles of on-street routes. Much of this is already in place. The "missing link," say proponents, is the Verrazano, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014.
"Why does this beautiful bridge not have bike/ped access?" asks Dave "Paco" Abraham, a member of the committee that has been working for the past year to formulate the Harbor Ring proposal. Abraham notes that the city’s other bridge crossings are seeing more bicycle and foot traffic than ever.
"It would be an economic development project for Staten Island and South Brooklyn," says Abraham, who compares the Verrazano’s potential as a tourist attraction to that of San Francisco’s Golden Gate.
It would also provide a transportation option. The Verrazano connects two of the most car-dependent parts of New York City, although Abraham notes that according to census figures, some 40 percent of local residents still don’t own vehicles.
Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro, in an interview with the Staten Island Advance, ridiculed the idea of opening up the bridge to non-motorized transport:
"I think it's absolutely ridiculous, across the Verrazano Bridge," harumphed Borough President James Molinaro. "It doesn't make sense. How many people would use it? It's got to be worth the effort and the cost, for everything you do."
Speaking from the other side of the crossing, Brooklyn borough prez Marty Markowitz – who has in the past had a decidedly ambivalent relationship with bike lanes – was more receptive, as Streetsblog reported:
“Putting a pedestrian and bike crossing on the Verrazano Bridge is a wonderful idea — the bridge needs it, and I’m certain New Yorkers would love it and use it,” Markowitz said in a statement. “It is absolutely necessary for any retrofit to be feasible, both financially and from an engineering, security and safety perspective,” he said. ”I encourage the MTA and City officials to at least take a look at the potential and determine if it could work.”
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the bridge, has said that it is not considering access for bikes and pedestrians in its current plans to rebuild and improve the upper deck of the Verrazano.
Abraham says that he and his fellow advocates are OK with that. They’re taking the long view when it comes to the Harbor Ring. Even without the Verrazano link, the route creates a holistic vision for the New York waterfront that has been building over the course of many years.
A generation ago, New York and New Jersey turned their backs on the waterways that define the region’s boundaries. The rivers were polluted, the piers were decaying. But that has steadily changed, as parks have gone in along the shoreline and fish have returned to the cleaner waters. Now, more and more people are using the harbor as a playground, taking to the water in kayaks or sailboats, or walking and biking along its periphery. It’s a change that has come from the long-range vision of many different people living along the banks of the Hudson and East rivers.
Like the park and greenway projects that came before it, the Harbor Ring is taking it slow and steady. "We’re not trying to win this in a day," says Abraham. "We’re in the initial stages of getting awareness." First up is an Indiegogo drive to get a map made of the proposed Harbor Ring. "It’s just step one of many steps, but it’s important," he says. A Facebook page is posting daily pictures of the attractions along the 50-mile route.
What motivates Abraham to face the challenges ahead, which could take years to overcome?
"Maybe part of it is that I’m a native New Yorker," says Abraham. "I just want to make my city better and better."