Famed Pulaski Skyway Gets a Facelift
New Jersey's General Casimir Pulaski Skyway has a long and storied past, as the subject of books, radio, television and video games. First made famous by Orson Wells in his 1938 radio drama The War of the Worlds, the broadcast announced alien forces were following the Skyway, heading toward New York City. Again in the late 90's, fans of the long-running television series The Sopranos, saw the bridge as a background in each show's opening credits.
This 84-year-old, 3.5-mile bridge is receiving a well-deserved makeover but remains operational throughout the duration of the eight-year project. The Skyway accommodates four travel lanes, two for northbound motorists (toward Jersey City) and two for southbound motorists (toward Newark). Motorists can travel in the southbound direction during this phase of the project. Northbound travel lanes are currently closed while the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) rehabilitates the bridge deck. The re-decking portion of the project is projected to be complete by the end 2016.
Covered in History
The Pulaski Skyway opened on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1932. It became the most expensive bridge of its day at a cost of $20 million. At the time, it was declared the "Most Beautiful Steel Structure" among long-span bridges by the American Institute of Steel Construction. The 18 million-pound elevated roadway spans from Jersey City to Kearny and peaks at 135 feet over the Hackensack and Passaic rivers.
According to New Jersey City University's website Jersey City: Past and Present, the construction of the Pulaski Skyway began as part of a larger $40 million, 13.2-mile long Route 1 Extension project in the 1920s. The movement of troops and war materials between the Port of New York and New Jersey railroad yards during World War I demonstrated the need for new highways between these two areas. After the war, NJDOT drew up a master plan for the extension of Route 1 from Elizabeth, through Newark and Jersey City, to the proposed Holland Tunnel at downtown Manhattan.
The Skyway was dedicated on October 11, 1933, the anniversary of the death of Revolutionary War Hero General Casimir Pulaski, a polish nobleman who was known as the "Father of the American Cavalry." Pulaski's portrait is mounted in bas relief on the Skyway's girders.
The cost of the bridge was about the same as the iconic 77-story Chrysler Building in Manhattan, also completed in the early 1930's. The Skyway's riveted-construction featured cantilevered trusses supported by concrete columns that were designed by Danish-born Engineer Sigvald Johannesson.
Architectural Historian and Author John Gomez noted that when famed Swiss-French Architect Le Corbusier visited America in the 1920s, he toured the area and was fascinated by the Skyway "because he was theorizing about highways in the sky and to him the Pulaski Skyway was the epitome of that concept. To him it was a part of New York City because it connected to the Holland Tunnel directly and therefore was an extension of the skyscrapers," said Gomez. "In a sense, it is a skyscraper. It was the future of cities."
The Skyway's two, 11-foot lanes in each direction with no shoulders and a "break down" lane at the center rendered it a dangerous roadway and led to the nicknames of "death highway" and "suicide lane." Fearful drivers sped along the highway for a fast exit. Due to the increasing number of head-on accidents, a small median was added to the center lane in 1954, and upgraded in 1978 to an aluminum barrier similar to a concrete "Jersey barrier."
According to NJDOT's Spokesman Stephen Schapiro, trucks were originally allowed on the Skyway, but they were banned in 1934 to prevent crashes. "The fact that trucks were prohibited on the bridge early on also helped prevent deterioration," said Schapiro. "It wasn't originally a divided highway but became so with the advent of the Jersey barrier. The barrier wasn't a concrete barrier but made of metal." Trucks were then diverted onto Communipaw Avenue, later known as the Route 1&9 Truck, which parallels the Skyway.
Time, Weather and Traffic Take a Toll
Nearly a century later, deterioration of the Skyway triggered the NJDOT's $1 billion rehabilitation project, including closure of the northbound lanes, said Schapiro. "The Skyway currently carries about 74,000 vehicles each day between Newark and Jersey City and it would cost about $3.5 billion to build a new bridge today," he noted.
For construction workers, a surprise came when they removed the Pulaski's concrete decking, exposing the steel beams underneath for the first time since the bridge was completed in 1932, said Project Manager Scott Thorn. "Many sections of those beams had rusted away, due partly to the bridge's design, which exposed them to rainwater and road salt. We've discovered a lot of deterioration on the floor beams, which we could not see in bi-annual inspections because this was a concrete-encased area," Thorn said. "Once the concrete was exposed, the steel under the deck was further deteriorated than we thought" agreed Schapiro. "Record breaking winters contributed to increased challenges to our schedule."
The challenge for commuters heading into Jersey City, Hoboken or New York City is a practical alternative to the Skyway. Schapiro says there are two main alternatives: First, using technology to improve traffic flow has included several intelligent transportation system (ITS) improvements that adjust traffic lights on the Route 1&9 Truck. Second, during peak commuter hours, the shoulder of the Newark Bay-Hudson County Extension (a part of the NJ Turnpike) is used as a third lane for traffic. A green arrow indicates times that the lane may be used in the northbound direction, going from Newark toward Jersey City.
Fortunately, close to 40,000 northbound vehicles are now traveling by alternate roadways or travel modes, including 9,600 in the peak morning period between 6 and 9 a.m. To minimize traffic congestion during the northbound lane closure, NJDOT encouraged motorists to become familiar with the alternate routes and modes of travel such as transit and ridesharing.
Part of the process included an extensive public outreach effort to both the community and businesses preceding the project, looking at options to alleviate traffic, noted Schapiro. "Alternative work schedules, shifting commute times (leaving earlier/later than normal) and public transportation were all a part of the equation," he said. "As a result, the greater public awareness has really helped." In terms of public transportation alternatives, NJ Transit offers the Route 22 corridor and other bus routes. "We also worked with PATH (The Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation) to maximize the capacity on the train and with the ferry companies to help commuters who were coming from the Jersey Shore."
Proceeding with Caution
Once the project is complete, driving the new Pulaski Skyway may be nearly as scary as its predecessor. Like the old bridge, the new one will have two on-ramps dumping traffic directly into the left lane. It also won't have shoulders, giving drivers a frightening sensation of claustrophobia while driving 135 feet in the air. "Bridges like this were a new thing in the 1930's," noted Schapiro. "The designer/builder of the bridge built it to rail standards vs. roadway standards."
The steel balustrade that protects drivers from veering off the outer edge of the roadway will be rebuilt to resemble the original and will be supplemented by a new guardrail. A short section of the Skyway will be widened near the center on-ramp from Broadway in Jersey City to make room for an acceleration lane, giving drivers time to speed up before merging into the fast lane.
However, the northbound on-ramp from Kearny into the center lane will not have such an acceleration space.
The entire Pulaski Skyway initiative includes 10 overall contracts, scheduled for completion by 2020 and valued at $1 billion. Thus far, Contract 1 is complete. Contract 2 will rehabilitate Route 139 upper and lower roadways (known as the covered roadway) connecting the Skyway to the Holland Tunnel, including deck replacement on the Conrail and Hoboken viaducts, seismic improvements and several cross street bridge replacements. Contracts 3 and 4 are the re-decking portions of the project, which began in April 2014. Costs for those portions have risen slightly due to increased deterioration. The remaining contracts include repairs to substructure and superstructure steel repairs and seismic retrofitting. The final part of the project, Contract 10, is for painting the bridge.