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Jeff Sellars looked out of his car window on his way to the George Washington Bridge and noticed something odd about the concrete pillars of the short subterranean highway known as Trans-Manhattan Expressway last month.
They looked even worse for wear than usual.
“It was just on a whim. I thought, ‘Huh! That looks interesting’,” Sellars, a 49-year-old home improvement contractor from Locust Valley, Long Island, said of the crumbling concrete.
What troubled him most was the four towering apartment buildings that sit atop the expressway in Washington Heights, he said. As someone with a background in engineering, the thought of the buildings lacking that support concerned him.
His concern led him to posting the photos of the pillars on his personal Facebook page. He began the post asking if the “structural integrity” of the expressway and those four buildings that make up the Bridge Apartments was “compromised,” expressing that he wasn’t sure that he felt safe enough to drive under there, knowing what those columns looked like.
Sellars did not expect his post to go viral, but it did. The photo showed up on Twitter and in Upper Manhattan Facebook groups. Someone named Zion Love — who had no connection to Sellar — even launched a Change.org petition in response to the photos, demanding answers for why these columns looked so dilapidated, and what the city was going to do about them.
But, according to the agency in charge of this stretch of highway connecting the Harlem River Drive to the George Washington Bridge, there was and is no need for concern.
Officials with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey told THE CITY that the pillars look the way they do because of ongoing work to repair parts of the expressway and the bridge — aptly named the “Restore the George” project, which began in 2016.
“The non-load bearing concrete encasement around the steel columns supporting the George Washington Bridge Bus Station and the four buildings above the Trans Manhattan Expressway is in the process of being replaced as part of the Port Authority’s ongoing $2 billion ‘Restoring the George’ program that fully rehabilitates and modernizes the 90-year-old George Washington Bridge,” said Amanda Kwan, a spokesperson for PANYNJ.
Councilmember Carmen de la Rosa (D-Manhattan) conveyed that same message from the Port Authority in an attempt to quell the fears of many residents who call those buildings home. Even with this statement from the Port Authority and de la Rosa, however, Sellars’ post continues to get new comments online from people worried about the look of the columns.
Zhan Guo, an associate professor of urban planning and transportation at New York University’s Wagner School, said the photos of those columns, and the state of aging bridges and roads in the city in general, should be on the mind of residents and officials.
“It looks very concerning. The story is pretty clear. I think we need to pay more attention to this issue,” Guo said. “These are things that will take five or 10 years to fix, but based on these photos, this is something that should happen tomorrow.”
Similar issues are affecting the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, with road salt and constant wear causing dangerous cracks in the concrete coverings that protect supportive steel bars. The city urgently needs a plan to rehabilitate BQE — or risk having to ban trucks from driving on it.
Yet, while the social virality of Sellars’ post helped get a quick response from officials, New Yorkers can’t always rely on the power of the internet when they have questions or concerns about crumbling city infrastructure.
An Old Town’s Roads
The roads and bridges of New York City are supposed to be evaluated every two years by either the city or state Department of Transportation or the New York State Thruway Authority under state and federal law.
Both agencies, along with the MTA, inspect their own bridges and roads as a part of compliance mandated by New York state. The Port Authority, which oversees the George Washington Bridge and the Trans-Manhattan Expressway, does not need to abide by inspection standards set by the DOT but they are required to report any serious findings from their inspections to the state within a week.
According to the most recent report from the DOT and NYSTA from May, there were 20 bridges and roads controlled by one or both of those authorities that were ranked as being in “poor” condition out of the 244 in Manhattan. One road on the poor ranking list includes an on ramp onto the George Washington Bridge.
Across the five boroughs, 107 roads and bridges are rated as poor out of the 1,477 that make up the DOT, NYSTA and MTA’s jurisdiction. Queens has the most with 31 ranked as poor, and Staten Island has the least with only three in that category.
Streetsblog earlier this year compiled a full, and somewhat alarming, list of these dilapidated roads and bridges. The highlighted roads ranged between 60 and 134 years old.
The “poor” designation indicates there is significant deterioration on a bridge’s deck, supports or other major components, according to the agencies. For roads, it means that there are visible signs of deterioration, potholes, and a breakdown in the pavement’s subbase.
A January report compiled by TRIP, a Washington-based nonprofit focused on transportation research sponsored by insurance companies, labor unions and various businesses that support efficient transit engineering, determined that 10% of bridges in New York state are rated as “poor,” which ranked 11th worst in the country.
“Inadequate transportation investment, which will result in deteriorated transportation facilities and diminished access, will negatively affect New York’s economic competitiveness and quality of life,” the report noted.
The restoration project aimed at repairing major portions of the GWB began in 2016 and is set to be completed over the next few years, according to the Port Authority. Kwan, the agency spokesperson, said that the long timeline was necessary to accommodate heavy traffic through the expressway.
Don’t Panic — But What Can You Do?
So, you spotted a dicey piece of the cityscape. But who’s the right person to call, and where can you report your concern?
When reporting on a crumbling road or bridge, a key step is knowing who is in charge of its maintenance.
If you can’t figure out the right agency to call, two good places to get help are your local community board or through the constituent services staff at your council member’s office.
According to de la Rosa, Community Board 12, which represents the area affected by this construction work, had been briefed on the GWB project, but she noted it is important to provide updates to the neighborhood as often as possible so that panic does not happen again.
All community boards in the city have meetings where residents and other local stakeholders can express concerns or ask questions about anything pertaining to the neighborhood. Residents can call their boards outside of meeting dates and times to speak about their concerns.
De la Rosa said she is happy to be “tagged” on posts such as the one of the expressway for a quick response, and appreciates calls to her community liaison — professional staff whose job it is to listen to and help residents within an elected official’s district.
Every Council member in the city has a similar point of contact. While some are more responsive than others, it is the most official way to make a connection with a representative in the city.
A list of those contacts can be found on the Council’s membership page.
Of course, taking photos of dilapidated underpasses and posting them to social media, in addition to tagging the proper authorities and elected officials who represent them, can work, as it did in Sellars’ case.
De la Rosa said she believes agencies and officials have a duty to help constituents be more aware of what is happening right under their feet.
“We want to make sure that they’re refreshing the community, trying their best to process the information,” she said.
Gary Fernandez, 30, a lifelong resident of one of the four towers making up the Bridge Apartments in Washington Heights, said he wasn’t concerned about the pillars before they went viral.
“Once that dude put it up on IG — everybody started reacting to it because people don’t notice that when you’re driving by. You’re trying to get home, probably stuck in traffic,” he said.
Of course, there’s one more option for getting answers about the city’s built environment and possible problems: Reach out to THE CITY with questions and concerns at email@example.com or send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.