Friday, February 8, 2013

The Pulaski Skyway - now cursed, once celebrated

Drivers in North Jersey have a love-hate relationship with the Pulaski Skyway. It's a toll-free alternative to the Turnpike's Newark Bay Extension if you want to get to the Holland Tunnel, but it's also a narrow, claustrophobic and often clogged artery that lacks anyplace for a disabled vehicle to pull over. Anybody who uses the Pulaski on a regular basis will tell you that the road is incredibly outdated, dangerous, way too small for the volume of traffic that uses it, you name it. And there are people who say its black-painted cantilevered bridges add to the ugliness of one of the most industrialized parts of the state.

Say what you want about it, but when it opened in 1932 as the Route 1 extension, it was lauded as the Most Beautiful Steel Structure by the American Institute of Steel Construction. The WPA Guide to New Jersey deemed it "outstanding among state highways" and a "pioneer achievement in ... handling through traffic in one of the most congested areas of the world," especially given the challenges of road building in the marshy terrain. Its cantilevered bridges cross both the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers at a clearance of 135 feet to accommodate War Department requirements; presumably for the safe passage of naval vessels. I can't imagine a warship traversing that far up either river today, but I guess they weren't leaving anything to chance.

The highway was a huge timesaver for motorists attempting to travel between Newark and New York, who had previously been forced to traverse the marshlands in a two-and-a-half hour odyssey of local roads and drawbridges. The opening of the Skyway reduced that trip to an estimated 15 minutes. Engineers promoted its virtues in terms of vehicle miles saved, estimating that the availability of the 3.5 mile long elevated road would save car drivers over 57 million miles of driving per year.

With all of those advantages, why has the Pulaski become such a target of fear and avoidance? According to the State Department of Transportation, its design represents "one of the first attempts to create a coherent elevated highway network," but it seems the attempt wasn't all that successful. Believe it or not, the Skyway was designed by railroad engineers who knew a lot about building train viaducts but not much about roads, and it shows. The lanes are a slim 11 feet across, and where there's now a center divider was originally a breakdown lane that both directions of traffic used as a de-facto passing lane, resulting in many accidents.

And while the Pulaski was envisioned as an expressway between its two terminal cities, powerful Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague insisted that entrance lanes be added midway, in a part of the city he felt was ripe for development. He may have been correct, but in the meantime, he demanded the creation of some pretty scary, steep ramps leading directly into heavy traffic. (Hague was also locked in a bitter battle with union leadership that resulted in a virtual labor war and the death of one worker, but that's a story for another time.)

First called the Diagonal Highway, the causeway was named for Casimir Pulaski shortly after its dedication. A Polish nobleman who fought in the American Revolution, he's considered by some to be the father of the U.S. cavalry. It's said that he was a dashing figure, both brave and aggressive in battle, traits that would serve a Skyway traveler well. If you're feeling particularly brave or foolhardy, the Pulaski also offers slim pedestrian walkways on its outer edges, where shoulders might have been a wiser addition. (Anybody up for a nice Sunday stroll over the meadows?)

The State Department of Transportation recently announced an eight-year, $1 billion project to rehabilitate the Skyway, with some of the work already underway. The biggest hassle will be the deck replacement that will require the closing of Jersey City-bound lanes next year. Ramps will also be updated, seismic structural repairs done, and the whole shebang will get a coat of paint at the end. The DOT estimates that the fixes will add another 75 years to the life of the road.

Some might wonder why they don't just take the whole thing down and build a new highway, but between demolition and construction, the cost would far exceed the rehab budget. As it is, engineers and construction crews will need to honor the original design intent, as the Pulaski is listed on both the State and National Historic Registers. And given the amount of development that's grown around it in the past 80 years, any major structural changes would disrupt a lot more than local traffic. Love it or hate it, the Pulaski Skyway is with us to stay.

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