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The bridges that never were -- at least not yet

Jan 1, 2003

Napoleon St. Cyr, just like his namesake, is not a man given to small dreams. He sat one early spring morning at Marnick’s Restaurant on the tiny municipal beach in the Lordship section of Stratford, Conn., to lay his dream before Charlie Walsh of the Connecticut Post.

With its big plate glass windows looking southward across Long Island Sound, Marnick’s is the perfect place for leisurely weekend breakfasting. It lies just east of the Bridgeport Harbor entrance. On a clear day you can watch the ferries to Port Jefferson - Park City, P.T. Barnum or Grand Republic - come out of Bridgeport and pass just west of the Middle Ground Light. They shrink down to tiny, white specks as they approach the New York shore and glimmer in the sun just before disappearing behind the Port Jeff breakwaters.

“I have breakfast here almost every Saturday morning,” St. Cyr told Walsh. “One morning, watching the Port Jeff ferry sail out of Bridgeport Harbor, I thought: ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

St. Cyr’s better way to get across Long Island Sound was to build a 14-mile-long bridge between Bridgeport’s Black Rock neighborhood and Port Jefferson. Somewhere around Middle Ground he envisioned a jetport so his grand design would relieve the strain on JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports as well as the Connecticut Turnpike (I-95) and the Long Island Expressway (I-495).

At an estimated cost of $7 billion, Napoleon St. Cyr’s dream is not going to be realized anytime soon, but the very idea of a bridge across Long Island Sound will always be a gleam in the eye of one visionary or another, and it will always make great copy.

If I could but assemble all the men and women who have committed journalism along the shores of the Sound over the past 60-odd years, each one of them would regret bitterly not having a nickel for every story they had written about some visionary’s plan to build a bridge across it. Such a tide of nickels could have carried most of us to the very brink of solvency.

People have always traveled back and forth across Long Island Sound, from the paleo-Indians in their dugout log canoes to the modern SUV-mounted suburban armored cavalry aboard the ferries between Bridgeport and Port Jefferson or from New London to Orient Point. Great ribbons of concrete and asphalt were laid down to help speed cars, trucks and buses on their way from New York to Boston and points east. Such vehicles don’t sail at all well, and, as they metastasized throughout the region, empire builders of government and business began to dream of launching the paved swaths across the Sound.

Except for the Bronx-Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges, none of these grandiose schemes ever came to pass. They never moved beyond the conceptual stage, and U.S. Coast Guard bridge administrators were never asked to issue permits for bridging Long Island Sound.

Try to imagine, however, what transiting the Sound would be like if the empire builders had had their way.

Captains of cruising boats, not to mention ships of any appreciable size, would have had to negotiate a fairly broad, but still closely defined, channel beneath the arching spans of seven bridges between Execution Rocks and Old Saybrook. Think of passing under a Throgs Neck, Annapolis or Golden Gate Bridge every few miles.

Between Bridgeport and Port Jefferson the channel would have to split into two branches - eastbound traffic to the south and westbound to the north, most likely - to steam around the huge, and astronomically expensive, artificial island required to accommodate the airport St. Cyr envisioned. Finally, the vessels would have left, or entered, the eastern end of Long Island Sound passing beneath two more soaring bridges over The Race or Watch Hill Passage.

Hazards to navigation? Probably not if the watch was on its toes. But hazards to the sheer joy of sailing the quasi-oceanic expanse of the Sound: Good grief, Charlie Brown!

The first of these schemes was by far the most colossal, second only to Napoleon St. Cyr’s bridge/airport idea. It was a plan for a 24.6-mile bridge/causeway from Orient Point at the tip of Long Island’s north fork, across Plum Gut, The Race and the eastern end of Fishers Island Sound to Watch Hill, R.I. Its cost was estimated at $634.8 million in the pre-inflation dollars of the early 1970s.

The idea surfaced in 1938 before the Commerce Committee of the U.S. Senate. It was to be a commercial link between Suffolk County, the eastern half of Long Island, and the markets of New England. Since eastern Long Island has always seemed more a part of New England than the New York megalopolis, the Orient Point/ Watch Hill crossing was also seen as a spiritual and cultural link.

It would have been a steel and concrete link of nearly biblical proportions. From Orient Point, the Eastern Sound Crossing would have leapt over Plum Gut to Plum Island, home of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Disease Laboratory, a place so loathsomely contaminated with things like swine fever, anthrax and foot and mouth disease that you wouldn’t want to set foot on it even if your kindly old Uncle Sam let you. From there it would have leapt across The Race to Fishers Island and Watch Hill Passage to Rhode Island.

At first, even Mother Nature seemed to approve of the idea. The great hurricane of September 1938 completely erased all the beachfront homes, and more than a few of their occupants, from Napatree Point, the lovely sliver of golden sand that was to have been the crossing’s Rhode Island anchor.

But the eastern Long Island Sound crossing, like so many other things, had to be set aside while the United States came to grips with Germany and Japan. It was revived in 1957 by Charles H. Sells, New York State’s public works commissioner. Governor W. Averell Harriman cancelled the project because of the cost and low traffic projections but said he would reconsider it if commerce and traffic warranted.

Barely five years passed before H. Lee Dennison, a civil engineer and Suffolk County Executive during the 1960s and early 70s, told The New York Times: “The major point to be considered in our general economy is the fact that we are the fastest growing area in the nation, but our future may be uncertain because we jut out to sea. Our only lines of transportation and communication to New York are tenuous, congested and inadequate. Much will be heard soon about the bridge to New England.”

Was Dennison’s heart really in it? When he left office in 1973 he opposed development on eastern Long Island, including the Sound crossing and its highway link to the Long Island Expressway.

There was no denying Suffolk County’s explosive growth and the sheer hell of getting from Long Island to New England by way of New York. In October 1961 the County Planning Board released the first detailed plan for the Eastern Sound Crossing that had been an amorphous dream for the previous 23 years.

It was a staggering proposal whose size, cost and environmental impact proved its undoing.

A. A 32-mile extension of the Long Island Expressway would be built between Riverhead and Orient Point, giving direct access to the southern end of the bridge.

B. A 1.42-mile bridge and causeway was to span Plum Gut between Orient Point and Plum Island. The center span of the bridge was to be 400 feet with a vertical clearance of 70 feet.

C. Nearly three miles of new highway would have been built, presumably with no rest stops, across the contaminated land of Plum Island.

D. A 5.21-mile-long suspension bridge and causeway with a center span of 1500 feet and a vertical clearance of 125 feet would have taken New England-bound motorists from Plum Island to Fishers Island. It would have crossed The Race, the 200-foot-deep main ship channel into Long Island Sound.

E. On Fishers Island, 6.36 miles of new highway was to be built. A 1964 amendment added a New London spur from Fishers Island north to the junction of Interstate Routes 95 and 395.

F. A bridge/causeway of 2.22 miles was to cross Fishers Island Sound to Napatree Point. The bridge alone was to be 4,000 feet long with a vertical clearance of 70 feet.

G. Finally, an extension of the Long Island Expressway would be built from the northern end of the crossing to I-95 in Rhode Island.

It was a monstrosity - I can’t think of a better term - that was mercifully euthanized by the consulting firm of Creighton, Hamburg. The New York State Department of Transportation hired Creighton, Hamburg to study the Orient Point-Watch Hill crossing. Creighton, Hamburg pegged construction costs at $634.8 million. It would have required tolls of $3.75 - each way - and the projected traffic volume of 6,800 a day was the lowest daily traffic forecast of any proposed Long Island Sound crossing.

Not only that, but in an area whose people placed a high value on their delicate interface between the land and the sea, the destruction of almost 150 acres of wetlands did not go down at all well.

The eastern Long Island Sound crossing died of its own weight, but, in the west, close to Manhattan, the dream never died. It came closest to realization in the late 1950s and early 60s thanks to the most visionary, dynamic, abrasive - and some say destructive - figures in the history of public construction in America.

Robert Moses (1888-1981) cast a dominating shadow over the New York metropolitan region for more than 40 years, from 1924 to 1968. He was born near the shore of Long Island Sound in New Haven, Conn. He was educated at Yale, Oxford and Columbia universities and, filled with the spirit of the progressive movement of the early 20th century, joined the New York City Municipal Research Bureau, an independent government monitoring group, in 1913.

He went on the city payroll in 1924 and began acquiring the power he needed to realize his youthful ideals 10 years later when he became New York City’s Parks Commissioner, the power base he held until 1960. He was also construction coordinator for the city Planning Commission. He added the chairmanship of the New York State Power Authority, between 1954 and 1963, and the presidency of the New York World’s Fair Corporation, from 1960 to 1967.

The holy grail of Moses’ life was to help the denizens of Manhattan’s crowded, disease-ridden tenements escape to the green fields of Long Island and the invigorating salty air of the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound.

The western end of Long Island - Brooklyn and Queens - was linked to the island of Manhattan by four bridges across the East River: the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Williamsburg bridges. However, there was no direct link between Long Island and the mainland of the United States, and all roads led through Manhattan. Moses built the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Triborough Bridge to serve the close-in boroughs at the western tip of Long Island. Then he started crossing the Sound, first with the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge and then the tall, graceful Throgs Neck Bridge.

Needless to say, as the population and the traffic increased, so did the pressure on the bridges. Because of the significant time involved in planning, acquiring land and then building, every highway project is obsolete before it opens. The Bronx-Whitestone was becoming jammed up within a year of its opening in 1939. After a time out for World War II, that led to the construction of the Throgs Neck Bridge two miles to the east.

The Throgs Neck Bridge was becoming a bottleneck by the early 1960s, but Moses, as usual, had the answer right at the tip of his pen.

His biographer, Robert A. Caro, wrote, “Moses’ solution: build another bridge across Long Island Sound, a huge ‘Sound Crossing’ between Oyster Bay and Rye. Presumably when that bridge was completed there would be another bridge to its east - and then another and another. Moses would, if he had his way, cover the Sound with bridges as the Tiber was covered with bridges in Rome.”

Moses laid his case out in an editorial published in the Long Island newspaper Newsday on Dec. 23, 1967: “The obvious solution of bridge congestion lies in building a Sound Crossing from Oyster Bay to Rye, later a second crossing from Port Jefferson to Bridgeport and then a third crossing from Greenport to Old Saybrook. Cars, trucks and buses not bound for New York City but for Westchester, New England and points north, east and west must be kept out of western Nassau, Queens, The Bronx and southern Westchester and diverted across the Sound.”

Moses’ political power began eroding in the early 1960s, and by March 1968 he was gone from public life, but his dream persisted. In 1971 the redoubtable Creighton, Hamburg Inc. studied eight possible bridge projects for the New York Department of Transportation:

A. Sands Point to New Rochelle, 3.3 miles at a cost of $132.3 million;

B. Glen Cove to Rye, 4.6 miles at $149.5 million

C. Oyster Bay to Rye, 6.1 miles at $167.9 million

D. Port Jefferson to Bridgeport, 14.6 miles at $368.3 million

E. Shoreham to New Haven, 19.3 miles at $564.7 million

F. Riverhead to Guilford, 19.2 miles, at $494.5 million

G. East Marion to Old Saybrook, 9.8 miles at $335.8 million

H. The old Eastern Sound Crossing from Orient Point to Groton or Watch Hill, 24.6 miles at $634.8 million That comes to $2.8 billion worth of bridges, in 1971 dollars. Creighton, Hamburg recommended only the Oyster Bay-Rye proposal but none of them was ever built.

Of course nothing springs as eternal as ideas for driving vehicles across Long Island Sound. In January 2001, Connecticut State Representative Lee Samowitz, a Bridgeport Democrat, put a bill before the General Assembly calling for yet another study, this time for a tunnel between Bridgeport and Port Jefferson.

Unlike St. Cyr, Samowitz’s plan does not call for an airport mid-Sound.

Should there be a bridge or a tunnel across Long Island Sound? As a sailor who revels in the beauty of the Sound, I can shout an emphatic “Hell, no!” As one who has composed his darkest curses on the Bronx-Whitestone and Throgs Neck Bridges, I can reply with an equally emphatic, “Hell, yes!”

Will there ever be a bridge or a tunnel across Long Island Sound?

I have learned the hard way, to never say never. But first, I think I’ll be able to ice skate between Bridgeport and Port Jeff.

Tony Muldoon, a professional journalist for many years, lives in Haddonfield, N.J., and sails his Golden Gate 30 out of Rock Hall, Md.


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