The Triborough Bridge, known officially as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge since 2008, and sometimes referred to as the RFK Triborough Bridge, is a complex of three separate bridges in New York City. The bridges connect the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx via Randalls and Wards Islands, which are joined by landfill. The bridge complex, which carries Interstate 278 and unmarked New York State Route 900G, connects with the FDR Drive and the Harlem River Drive in Manhattan, the Bruckner Expressway and the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx, and the Grand Central Parkway and Astoria Boulevard in Queens.
The three bridges of the Triborough Bridge complex are:
- the Harlem River vertical-lift bridge, the largest in the world, which connects Manhattan to Randall’s Island;
- the Bronx Kill truss bridge, connecting Randall’s Island and the Bronx;
- the suspension bridge over Hell Gate – a strait of the East River – which connects Ward’s Island to Astoria in Queens.
These are connected by an elevated highway viaduct across Randall’s and Ward’s Islands and 14 miles (23 km) of support roads. Also part of the complex is a grade-separated T-interchange on Randall’s Island, which sorts out traffic in a way that ensures that drivers pay a toll at only one bank of toll booths.
The bridge complex was designed by chief engineer Othmar H. Ammann and architect Aymar Embury II, and has been called the “biggest traffic machine ever built”. The American Society of Civil Engineers designated the Triborough Bridge Project as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1986.
The bridge is owned and operated by the MTA Bridges and Tunnels, part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Planning and construction
Plans for connecting Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx were first announced by Edward A. Byrne, chief engineer of the New York City Department of Plant and Structures, in 1916. While such a bridge complex’s construction had long been recommended by local officials, the project failed to receive funding until 1925, when the city appropriated money for surveys, test borings and structural plans.
Construction began on October 25, 1929 – Black Friday – but soon the Triborough project’s outlook began to look bleak. Chief engineer Othmar Ammann, who had collapsed the original design’s two-deck roadway into one, requiring lighter towers, and thus, lighter piers, saving $10 million on the towers alone, was enlisted again to help guide the project, but the combination of Tammany Hall graft, the stock market crash, and the Great Depression which followed it, brought the project to a virtual halt, as investors shied away from purchasing the municipal bonds needed to fund it. By the spring of 1932, the project was moribund.
The project was resurrected by Robert Moses, who pushed the state legislature to create the Triborough Bridge Authority (TBA) to fund, build and operate it. Moses was confronted by a situation where the city had not planned any of the necessary approaches to the structure, or even bought up the property that would clearly be needed to build those roads, property which they could have gotten at bargain prices early on. Moses solved this problem in typical fashion by proposing new roads and parkways to feed into the bridge, which would connect it to the existing ones he had already built. The complex of roads included the Grand Central Parkway and Astoria Boulevard in Queens, an extension to the East River Drive (now the FDR Drive) in Manhattan, and Whitlock Avenue and Eastern Boulevard in the Bronx.
While reformers embraced Moses’ plans, state and city officials were overwhelmed by their scale, and slow to move to provide financing for the vast system. Moses leveraged his leadership of the Authority – after he wrenched control of it away from Tammany – as well as the state and city positions he also held, to start the project up again, with construction resuming in November 1933. Eventually, funding would come from the city and from the Federal government under New Deal programs such as the Public Works Administration (PWA), the latter of which involved complex political infighting between Moses, PWA Administrator Harold L. Ickes, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, over which Moses almost lost his job. The other major source of funding was from interest-bearing bonds issued by the Triborough Bridge Authority itself, and not by the city. These bonds were secured by future toll revenue.
The scale of the Triborough Bridge project, including its approaches, was such that hundreds of large apartment buildings were demolished to make way for it. The structure used concrete from factories “from Maine to the Mississippi”, and steel from 50 mills in Pennsylvania. To make the formwork for pouring the concrete, a forest’s worth of trees on the Pacific Coast was cut down. Robert Caro, the biographer of Moses, said about it:
Triborough was not a bridge so much as a traffic machine, the largest ever built. The amount of human energy expended in its construction gives some idea of its immensity: more than five thousand men would be working at the site, and these men would only be putting into place the materials furnished by the labor of many times five thousand men; before the Triborough Bridge was completed, its construction would have generated more than 31,000,000-man hours of work in 134 cities in twenty states.
The completed structure, described by The New York Times as a “Y-shaped sky highway”, was dedicated on July 11, 1936, at ceremonies held on the central span which were attended by President Roosevelt, Mayor La Guardia, New York State Governor Herbert H. Lehman, Public Works Administrator Ickes, Postmaster General James A. Farley and Moses, who acted as master of ceremonies. Due to the previous conflicts between himself and Moses, the attendance of Roosevelt was not certain until the last minute. The ceremonies were broadcast via a nationwide radio connection.
The total cost of the bridge, the largest PWA project in the East, was more than $60 million – over a billion dollars in 2015 funds – one of the largest public works projects of the Great Depression, more expensive than the Hoover Dam. Of this, $16 million came from the city and $9 million directly from the PWA, which also purchased $35 million worth of TBA bonds, which were eventually bought back and resold to the public. In the first year of the bridge’s operation it generated $2.72 million in tolls – the equivalent of $46.4 million in 2015 – produced by 9.65 million vehicles.
A by-product of the Triborough project was the creation of parks and playgrounds in the lands underneath the bridges and approaches on Ward’s and Randall’s Island, in Astoria and in Manhattan.
At some point in the past, a sign on the bridge informed travelers, “In event of attack, drive off bridge,” New York Times columnist William Safire wrote in 2008. The “somewhat macabre sign”, he wrote, must have “drawn a wry smile from millions of motorists.”
On November 19, 2008, the Triborough Bridge was officially renamed after Robert F. Kennedy at the request of the Kennedy family. Forty years had passed since the New York United States Senator and former U.S. Attorney General had been assassinated during a 1968 presidential bid. Traffic and news reports have come to commonly refer to the bridge as the “RFK Triborough Bridge” to avoid confusion among residents long accustomed to its original name.
In 2015, the MTA started two reconstruction projects on different parts of the bridge as part of a $1 billion, 15-year program to renovate the bridge complex. The MTA commenced construction on a $213 million rehabilitation of the 1930s-era toll plaza between the Queens and Bronx spans, which included a rebuilding of the roadway and the supporting structure underneath. The new tollbooth structure is to be completed in 2019. In addition, a ramp from the Manhattan span to the northbound Harlem River Drive was being built for $68.3 million, with the ramp to be finished by December 2017.
The toll revenues from the Triborough Bridge pay for a portion of the public transit subsidy for the New York City Transit Authority and the commuter railroads. The bridge had annual average daily traffic of 164,116 in 2014. For that year, the bridge saw annual toll-paying traffic rise by 2.9% to 59.9 million, generating $393.6 million in revenue at an average toll of $6.57.
The bridge has sidewalks in all three legs where the TBTA officially requires bicyclists to walk their bicycles across due to safety concerns. However, the signs stating this requirement have been usually ignored by bicyclists, while the New York City Government has recommended that the TBTA should reassess this kind of bicycling ban. Stairs on the 2 km (1.2 mi) Queens leg impede handicapped access. The Queens stairway along the southern side was demolished at the beginning of the 21st century, thus isolating that walkway, but the ramp of the Wards Island end of the walkway along the northern side was improved in 2007. The two sidewalks of the Bronx span are connected to only one ramp at the Randalls Island end.
Starting on March 19, 2017, drivers will pay $8.50 per car or $3.50 per motorcycle for tolls by mail. E‑ZPass users with transponders issued by the New York E‑ZPass Customer Service Center pay $5.76 per car or $2.51 per motorcycle. All E-ZPass users with transponders not issued by the New York E-ZPass CSC will be required to pay cash toll/Toll-by-mail rates.[
Open-road cashless tolling will begin in summer 2017. The tollbooths will be gradually dismantled, and drivers will no longer be able to pay cash at the bridge. Instead, there will be cameras mounted onto new overhead gantries near where the booths are currently located. Drivers without E-ZPass will have a picture of their license plate taken, and the toll will be mailed to them. For E-ZPass users, sensors will detect their transponders wirelessly.
The Triborough Bridge carries the M35, M60, X80 bus routes operated by MTA New York City Transit, and nine express bus routes operated by the MTA Bus Company: BxM1, BxM2, BxM6, BxM7, BxM8, BxM9, BxM10, BxM11, BxM18.
In the 1920s, New York’s Transit Commission considered extending the BMT Astoria Line along the same route the Triborough now follows. The proposal would have created a crosstown subway line along 125th Street.
East River suspension bridge (I-278)
- Span crosses the East River at the Hell Gate between Queens and Wards Island
- Connects to Grand Central Parkway and Brooklyn–Queens Expressway
- Length of main span: 1,380 feet (421 m)
- Length of each side span: 700 feet (213 m)
- Length, anchorage to anchorage: 2,780 feet (847 m)
- Width of bridge: 98 feet (30 m)
- Number of traffic lanes: 8 lanes
- Height of towers above mean high water: 315 feet (96 m)
- Clearance at center above mean high water: 143 feet (44 m)
- Number of sidewalks: 1
Harlem River lift bridge (NY 900G)
- Span crosses the Harlem River between Manhattan and Randalls Islands
- Connects to Harlem River Drive, FDR Drive, and 125th Street
- Length of main lift-truss span: 310 feet (94 m)
- Length of each side truss span: 195 feet (59 m)
- Length, anchorage to anchorage: 700 feet (213 m)
- Height of towers: 210 feet (64 m)
- Clearance of lift span above mean high water: 55 feet (17 m)
- Clearance of lift span in raised position: 135 feet (41 m)
- Number of traffic lanes: 6 lanes
- Number of sidewalks: 2 (1 on each side)
Bronx Kill crossing (I-278)
- Span crosses the Bronx Kill between The Bronx and Randalls Island
- Connects to Major Deegan Expressway and Bruckner Expressway
- Length of main truss span: 383 feet (117 m)
- Length of approach truss span: 1,217 feet (371 m)
- Length, anchorage to anchorage: 1,600 feet (488 m)
- Clearance of truss span above mean high water: 55 feet (17 m)
- Number of traffic lanes: 8 lanes
- Number of sidewalks: 2 (1 on each side)