By Raanan Geberer
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The collapse of part of the façade of the Brooklyn Bridge’s walkway during last Wednesday’s heavy lightning storm, reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle by Mary Frost, shows how important bridge maintenance can be.
As Frost reported, the collapse injured five people. It could have injured many more, but water coming down from the façade minutes beforehand sent people below scurrying for shelter. Luckily, those who were hurt had minor injuries.
I have no doubt that the contractors will correct any problems with the bridge’s façade. But this brings to mind an almost-forgotten episode of recent history: The bridge scandal of the 1980s, which involved the other two Brooklyn-to-Manhattan bridges.
It began in April 1988 when a routine inspection of the Williamsburg Bridge found 30 severely corroded beams, some of them almost entirely eaten away. It turned out that the bridge hadn’t had an in-depth inspection for almost 10 years.
The city Department of Transportation’s chief engineer, Sam Schwartz, said that a screeching sound coming from somewhere within the bridge led him to order the bridge shut down. This is the same Sam Schwartz, also known as “Gridlock Sam,” who later designed the transportation plan for Barclays Center.
The bridge was supposed to be shut down for a few weeks, but it turned out to be several months while repairs proceeded. Some people talked about demolishing the bridge entirely and replacing it. At some point, subway officials wanted to place several trains on the bridge’s M, J and Z tracks to see how much stress the trains were putting on the bridge. The test, however, was never done because of union rules.
Once the Williamsburg Bridge scandal broke, experts started looking at other bridges, too. It turned out that 50 percent of the city’s bridges were listed as structurally deficient. Officials started looking at the Manhattan Bridge, and in December 1988 they found corroded support beams and missing steel plates, making more repairs necessary.
At the time, one commentator stated that the problems had started during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, when the city adopted a policy of “deferred maintenance.” It was much easier, he said, for the city to cut the bridge and tunnel maintenance budget, which most people are hardly aware of, than high-profile budget items like education and social services. The Brooklyn Bridge wasn’t affected — although it was older than the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, it was more solidly built.
For the Williamsburg Bridge, the story had a happy ending — the bridge’s reconstructed bike path became so popular that it is now the most heavily-bicycled span in North America. For the Manhattan Bridge, however, more troubles lay ahead. Before the crisis, there were two active sets of tracks on the bridge — on the north side, the D and B connected to the Sixth Avenue line, while on the south side, the N and Q connected to the Broadway line.
After structural deficiencies were discovered, the bridge could only support trains on one set of tracks. Thus, trains were diverted to the north side or the Montague Street tunnel while the south-side tracks were being repaired. Then, when the south side was back in service, the north-side tracks were shut down. It wasn’t until 2004 when all four tracks carried trains again.
Hopefully, the recent Brooklyn Bridge accident was just a fluke, and the damage will soon be repaired. If nothing else, the 1988 bridge crisis has made us more aware of the need for constant maintenance of the city’s infrastructure.
—Raanan Geberer, a freelance writer, recently retired as Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He had been Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Bulletin until 1996, when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was revived and merged with the Bulletin.