BUILDING BRIDGES FOR MOUNT VERNON
You’ve heard people say it a million times: “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Those people probably didn’t live in Mount Vernon. As anyone who has spent any time here knows, that adage would read, “When we come to a bridge in Mount Vernon, it’s probably closed, and no one knows when we’ll get to cross it.”
Fully half of Mount Vernon’s downtown bridges are inaccessible – 3rd Avenue, 6th Avenue, 10th Avenue, and 14th Avenue. The other half are riddled with potholes and virtually impassable at peak times. At least two of these bridges (3rd Avenue and 10th Avenue) have been closed for more than a decade with no clear completion date in sight. To put that into some perspective, replacing just those two very short spans (approximately 60-100 feet each) over the Metro North tracks in downtown Mount Vernon, will take longer than building the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the Mario Cuomo (new Tappan Zee) Bridge, the Empire State Building, the Erie Canal, the World Trade Center, the Barclays’ Center, and Citi Field – combined! It’s bizarre, unconscionable and, frankly, shameful.
As most Mount Vernon citizens know, these bridges are vital conduits for unifying our city. When the MTA built the New Haven line, it essentially split Mount Vernon in two – a North side and a South side. Socioeconomic forces have further divide the city along that same line. In Mount Vernon, the “other side of the tracks” is a sobering reality because it describes two very different and distinct communities. Having our bridges open will provide our residents with a sense of community; a unifying wholeness. And, it will do much to eliminate the division and sectional squabbling when certain residents are essentially cut off from the rest of their city. For many of them, those railroad tracks may as well be an impenetrable wall.
A bit of background here. Mount Vernon’s bridges, 11 in total, are jointly owned by the City of Mount Vernon and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and, as a result of historical agreements with previous railroads, the MTA is largely responsible for maintenance and replacement of them. The city does not have control over which bridges get fixed and/or when. It’s worth noting that many of these bridges date back to the 1890’s and some, unbelievably, still have wooden platforms on which the current road sits. To say that these structures are obsolete and have outlived their usefulness is a mammoth understatement. Yet, there they are.
The MTA has slated some of these bridges for replacement over the next few years, while the fate of others is to be addressed at an unknown time in the far future. But, even with the few that are to be repaired sooner, this schedule is too far in the future. These are extremely short bridges. If the political will is there, they could be replaced in weeks. Instead, the MTA’s Capital Plan reveals that they will require 16-30 months per bridge. By comparison, when the NYC Department of Transportation wanted to replace the Third Avenue Bridge connecting Manhattan and The Bronx – a 2,800-foot span (roughly 28 times longer than we’re talking about here!) – the entire bridge was built off-site while the old bridge remained operational. The completed structure was put into service in less than 3 months. The complexity of construction is not the issue. This is simply a matter of priorities.
Let’s be very clear here, the closures are not just a traffic nuisance; they are creating a health and safety crisis in our community. Montefiore Hospital and Mount Vernon’s Police Department sit just blocks away from the now-closed 6th Avenue bridge. In order to traverse the Metro North track, emergency responders are forced to find longer alternative routes. When minutes and seconds count, this could be the difference between life and death. Those routes are further constricted by closures of the other three downtown bridges. So, at the alternative route, our emergency personnel face traffic bottlenecks. This is a disaster waiting to happen. It creates a wicked probability calculus that boils down to a sad fact of geography: your chance of survival in an emergency situation is dramatically impacted by whether or not you live on this side or that side of the railroad tracks.
Here is another point of concern: what if parts or an entire bridge falls onto the Metro North tracks? And, what if this happens while a train is at the point of impact? Beyond the devastation to Mount Vernon motorists and pedestrians, there could be costly damage to property, and catastrophic injury to Metro North commuters and workers. There is little doubt that deferring these repairs is a short-sighted approach. And sadly, it also gives the appearance that these structures are being ignored because they are in Mount Vernon where people of color are in the majority, and the income level is lower than most Westchester neighborhoods. Yet, a bridge failure could and certainly will seriously Mount Vernon, as well as riders in New York and Connecticut.
Historically, a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing has occurred when questions are raised about why Mount Vernon’s bridges are left to literally rot while those of our surrounding communities are repaired. Despite valid questions and concerns, there is yet to be an answer that speaks to any immediate proposal to fix the bridges. Just holding up the mirror to those responsible and expecting a different result is not going to move these projects forward. Having righteousness on our side is great, but it’s not useful currency when infrastructure fails. It’s not going to get the ambulances to the hospital any faster or the Fire Department to the fire any quicker. We need more than just the moral high ground. In order to rebuild Mount Vernon’s bridges, we need to build some bridges of our own – with the MTA, with Westchester County, with Albany, and with Washington, D.C. Constructive, persistent, and regular dialogue needs to begin immediately and continue until we see concrete results.
It is imperative that Mount Vernon’s leadership make this a priority. We must make our case to our partners logically, persistently and in unison. We can no longer merely accept empty promises, instead, we must pursue significant outcomes. We must have a say in setting priorities. Most of all, we need to stop waiting for the MTA to “fit us into” their capital improvement plan. We must take the initiative to make our priority important to them. Lives are in jeopardy! A community is being divided. Our whole city is crippled by stakeholders who ignore our needs and overlook the ramifications of their inaction. It’s time to aggressively engage our partners. If they are not receptive then we need to work harder to make them receptive. We need to persist until real progress is made. We must consistently shine the spotlight on this problem until solved.
The issue with Mount Vernon’s bridges is, in some sense, symbolic of the challenges we continually face as a community. Mount Vernon was split down the middle to make it easier for other people’s travel through our city, at the cost of limiting our travel within our city. It’s not too much to ask that those who benefit, to do what is right and necessary on a timeline without further delay. We can choose to hope the status quo changes, or we can engage meaningfully with our partners in New York, Westchester, Albany, and Washington, D.C. to change the status quo.
This issue requires full-time leadership. It’s not one we can pursue half-heartedly or inconsistently. Neither can we accept empty promises nor pointless responses. It is a practical problem requiring focused attention, reliable solution and demonstrable results. The consequences of doing nothing could end up being counted in lives lost and not just dollars and cents. Bridge-building must become both our unified goal and our shared expectation of ‘common sense’ solutions. Take heed MTA; Mount Vernon goes on the record… we want our bridges repaired now!
Let’s get to work.