This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

Building bridges

On May 29, 1935, two years after they had begun pouring, crews placed the last concrete in Hoover Dam. This modern civil engineering wonder stood completed two and ½ years ahead of schedule.

Across the industrialized world in places like China and Germany, high-speed railroads and gleaming new airports are being built at a great pace.  And here in the United States? According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, we have infrastructure so outdated that it will take some $2.2 trillion dollars to fix. There are many reasons behind this grim picture. But one reason, some experts tell us, is how long it takes to approve such projects.

If you want to understand what’s happening or what is not happening to infrastructure in America, take a look at the Bayonne Bridge, an 81-year-old, mile long structure that connects New Jersey to Staten Island and forms a critical part of the region’s transportation grid. It has also become a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences.

Because of the bridge’s height–or lack of it–the newer generation of bigger ships that will soon pass through the expanded Panama Canal will be unable to pass under the bridge to reach the Ports of Newark and Elizabeth in New Jersey and Howland Hook on Staten Island. Unless it’s fixed, that will cost the region uncounted billions of dollars in lost economic activity. Port Authority Engineers say they found a solution in 2009 – and now it is 2013. Our story explores what’s holding up (or down) the bridge.

More to explore:

Germany’s green revolution

What would it take to transform the whole country’ electric grid–to shut down all of its old power plants, and move to a system that generates electricity exclusively from renewable resources? Well, that’s exactly what Germany’s trying to do–not decades from now….but now?

Robert Moses: The god of infrastructure

In his reign as ‘Master Builder,’ Robert Moses “built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units, spending $150 billion in today’s dollars.” He also became a symbol of blatant disregard of community input.

Support for this program is made possible by: Perry and Donna Golkin Family Foundation, The William and Mary Greve Foundation, and O’Shaughnessy Family Partners LLC.

Watch more full episodes of Need to Know.

  • thumb
    Main Street: Findlay, Ohio
    Need to Know travels to Ohio to assess how workers are faring after the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs over the past 35 years.
  • thumb
    Following the money: Tax breaks
    New CBO report echoes the findings of Need to Know's "A tale or four tax returns."
  • thumb
      Certifiably employable
    Rick Karr recently visited Seattle to look at a program designed to give the unemployed the skills they need to find jobs in one of the country’s fastest-growing industries.


  • Victoria Gillen

    I am the president of the Elm Park Civic Association – my community surrounds the Staten Island foot of the Bayonne Bridge. Our members support the roadway raising. We also absolutely believe there are ways to minimize and mitigate the impact of this 3-plus year project on our community.

    People with no familiarity – and little desire to learn about, our community, are conducting the environmental review process; they seem to view the review as a terrible burden, and our community as a an adversary which must be overcome.

    We were not directly contacted at the beginning of this process. Fortunately we discovered the request for comments on the original scoping document – and were able to meet the deadline for comments. Good thing we did: there was no mention of the existence of two schools and a Superfund site within 100 feet of the work area. Indeed, when asked about where workers would park, we were told they would park on the superfund site! Surely this cannot be construed as obstructionist behaviour on our part, can it?

    We feel our community is barely tolerated in this process, and simply represents an obstacle to be overcome, and that engagement with the ‘locals’ is an annoying regulatory requirement. Illustrating this: approximately 40% of the people in our community are Spanish-speaking. We requested, repeatedly, a Spanish translation of the Draft Environmental Assessment – when it was released we were told it is a very “robust” document (750 pages), so there is no translation, however a a five-page simplified version will be available in Spanish when public meetings are held.

    Regional Planning is absolutely correct: the community must be engaged early in the process, and should be treated respectfully. Ironbound is correct: there must be meaningful engagement. The assessment process is not a make-work “publish and defend” process, it is meant to provide opportunities for meaningful dialogues. I submit that our communities are capable of playing a significant role – we are not an uneducated mass of obstructionists The Germans understand they are all in it together – here in the States we seem to have embraced the principles of colonial extractionism.,- the project will go through; the locals have little say; any consideration of the local community is begrudged. What a pity: we really DO need these projects.

  • Anonymous

    I live in a suburb just north of Chicago. There is a commuter line rail station as well as a light rail line directly across the street from my house. Recently, due to state and federal funding, the light rail line bridge was completely replaced after years of neglect. The commuter rail bridge is crumbling, and raising fares won’t solve this problem. A 70,000 ton train sits on that bridge 72 times every single week day and a few more times on the weekend.

    We need to build bridges like this and bring back the strength that is America.