Bridge to nowhere

Bridge to nowhere

What to do with the Bayonne Bridge? The question has nagged the Port of New York and New Jersey for years. The port authority is studying whether to replace the span, raise its roadway, or jack up the entire structure to provide more clearance for ships.

Now comes Gerard von Dohlen with a different idea: Just tear it down.

He's serious. Von Dohlen, president of Port Newark Refrigerated Warehouse, told the audience at the annual New York-New Jersey Port Industry Day that it makes no sense to spend $2 billion to raise or replace the mile-long structure between Bayonne, N.J., and Staten Island, N.Y.

If you think this is only a local issue, think again. The waterway under the bridge is as important to Chicago as it is to New Jersey. The bridge's 151-foot vertical clearance restricts the size of ships that can use the port's busiest terminals. It's a kink in a distribution chain that extends deep into the Midwest.

Von Dohlen agrees that something must be done, but he said the numbers on replacing or raising the bridge don't work.

Here's his back-of-envelope math: A new $1.2 billion bridge, financed at 8 percent, would require $96 million in annual debt service. The existing bridge carries just under 8 million vehicles a year. At an $8 toll per car, that's roughly $64 million in revenue. If operating costs consume half of revenue, that leaves $32 million in cash flow.

The $96 million in debt service, reduced by the $32 million in cash flow, leaves $64 million to be covered by subsidies or tolls. And that's for a $1.2 billion bridge. If the replacement bridge costs $2 billion, as the port authority now estimates, the numbers look even worse.

"The port authority should stand up and say that this bridge is unnecessary and has to be closed," von Dohlen said. "They're not going to get an acceptable cost-benefit ratio even if they stand on their heads."

Economics and politics, however, are two different things. The port authority is not about to demolish a structurally sound bridge that carries 22,000 vehicles a day. There would be fierce opposition from bridge users and from officials in nearby communities, where the handsome steel-arch bridge is a local landmark.

Von Dohlen insists the opposition could be overcome, if the port authority can muster the will. He said subsidized ferries could handle vehicular traffic more cheaply than a new bridge, and that local politicians would willingly abandon the bridge in exchange for a few million dollars a year in port authority subsidies.

As for the bridge's landmark status, von Dohlen has a solution for that, too: "Just take a good picture of the bridge before they knock it down."