July/August 1997, p.2

Provocateur: Verrazano Vision

By Charles Komanoff

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New York, a metropolis of islands, is home to the greatest collection of bridges in the world. The dozen epic spans erected from the 1880s to the 1960s inspire wonderment and civic pride. They bear special importance for walkers and bike riders, offering vital travel routes and stunning open-air vantages in a grand synthesis of natural and man-made beauty.

No experience is quite like viewing the lit-up Manhattan skyline from mid-span on the Brooklyn Bridge, or crossing the George Washington Bridge as the rising sun illumines the Palisades. Every day these and the city's workhorse bridges, from the Williamsburg to the Triboro, convey thousands of pedestrians, cyclists and skaters on safe, traffic-free lanes.

The city's youngest bridge, and the hemisphere's longest, spans New York Harbor from Bay Ridge to Staten Island's southeast shore. The public works genius Robert Moses was 75, and the master bridge designer Othmar Ammann 85, when their and New York City's last great bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows, opened in 1964. Whether it was their ages or just the age of ascendant auto-mobility, the Verrazano was built without a pedestrian-bicycle path. Save for the annual NYC Marathon and 5-Boro Bike Tour, when one level of the bridge is briefly closed to motor traffic, there is no way to cross the Verrazano under one's own power, no opportunity to stop and savor the kaleidoscope of city, sea and sky.

Two months ago, however, the bridge's builder, Ammann & Whitney, revealed that a permanent year-round walk-and-bike path could be retrofitted onto the Verrazano. In an exhaustive study for the Department of City Planning, the firm recommended twin 2.2- mile paths - a pedestrian promenade facing lower Manhattan, and a south-facing bike path overlooking an expanse of coastline from Jones Beach to the Jersey shore. For an estimated $26.5 million, the city could gain both an international tourist attraction and an irresistible magnet for adventurous New Yorkers.

The place to find the money is the federal government's next six-year transportation budget, which Congress is now drafting. Fortuitously, Congresswoman Susan Molinari, who represents not only Staten Island but communities on the Brooklyn side of the bridge, is a ranking member of the House Transportation Committee. If Rep. Molinari pushes now, before her impending retirement, and Mayor Giuliani and Gov. Pataki lend support, there is a good chance that money for the paths could be earmarked in the new bill.

To be sure, with budget cuts afflicting schools, subways and social services, investing millions to access the Verrazano Bridge gives pause. But the pot being tapped is exclusively transportation funds, much of it destined for expensive new highways. In the tri-state region alone, billions are being targeted for dozens of highway expansions, all certain to be saturated by the development and traffic that new roads inevitably generate.

In contrast, the Verrazano walk and bike paths would literally expand our horizons. Cyclists and hikers from around the City would have a fabulous destination for day trips. The maritime elements of Gateway National Park, from Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to Great Kills National Seashore, would be fully linked. Residents near the bridge, particularly those who don't own cars (a third of all house-holds in the four community boards closest to the bridge), would gain a new travel option. Perhaps best of all, kids from these communities would get to flex their independence by tackling the challenging climb and seeking out new vistas.

One evening last month, under a wind-driven, technicolor sky, I took my two-year-old to the Hudson River esplanade in lower Manhattan. Staten Island twinkled like a New England fishing village, and the Verrazano Bridge gleamed. I remembered a long-ago October afternoon at age eight, when I hiked with my best friend two miles across the Long Beach Bridge and returned home beaming with pride. I looked at my son in his stroller and pictured him beside me in 2003, coasting down the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on a bike, proud as an 8-year-old can be.

-Charles Komanoff is a past president of T.A.

This article was first published in the Staten Island Advance on June 18, 1997.