An article in The New York Times examines the current state of the Pulaski Skyway, an overhead road that bypassed part of the Lincoln Highway in northern New Jersey in 1932. The 3-mile-long superhighway, named for Revolutionary War general Casimir Pulaski, was built to handle the traffic resulting from the opening of the Holland Tunnel in 1927. It carries traffic above the region’s heavy industrial and commercial areas. On its first day of operation, 48,611 cars used it; today the average is 85,000 according to the Department of Transportation. The skyway was an engineering marvel when opened in 1938: the American Institute of Steel Construction called it the most beautiful steel bridge, and it still is a grand structure. But its lanes are narrow, and after the tragic collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis that employed the same antiquated design, it’s again being reviewed. All of the 700-such bridges in the US lack a secondary support, “meaning that the failure of just one piece of steel could send them plummeting to the ground.”
NJ Governor Jon S. Corzine says that “instead of spending the $10 million a year now planned to keep the skyway safe and operational, it might be wiser to replace it,” but that would cost $1 billion. The bridge was inspected in spring 2007, but the NJ Department of Transportation, “citing security concerns, refused to release the records of that inspection or discuss whether the findings differed substantially from those of the previous inspection.” Another inspection was ordered after the Minneapolis collapse.
So the most recent data is from a 2004 inspection. On a scale of 0 to 9, with 9 being perfect and 0 requiring a shutdown, the skyway was rated 4 for the physical condition of its structural members and 5 for the physical condition of its piers and other substructure components.
According to the Times, “Those numbers are not dire. But the scores are similar to those assigned to the bridge in Minneapolis. It received a 4 for structure and 6 for substructure during its most recent inspection.” That makes it “structurally deficient” though “not a risk of imminent collapse.”
Although it is 35 years older than the Minneapolis span, it may actually be safer; since less was known about structural support then, more steel was often used than was needed. And because Jersey City banned trucks from the bridge in 1934, it’s taken less of a beating. That’s why officials want to assure drivers not to panic, that there’s plenty of time to plan for repairs or replacement. Let’s hope so.