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The Long-Missing Link: New Push for Verrazano Bridge Bike-Ped Path

Before the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened in 1964, New Yorkers on foot or bike could travel between Staten Island and Brooklyn by taking a ferry from 69th Street in Bay Ridge to St. George. Since the bridge opened, there are only two times each year when people are allowed to cross it under their own power: the New York City Marathon, held every November, and the Five Boro Bike Tour each May.

A map of the Harbor Ring route. Notice what’s missing? Image: Transportation Alternatives

In two years, the MTA will mark the 50th anniversary of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. In anticipation, advocates have launched a new effort to create a permanent bicycle and pedestrian path on the span. It’s the missing link of what's being called the "Harbor Ring," a loop around New York Harbor christened on Tuesday by Transportation Alternatives.

The proposal has already received a cool reception from Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro. “I think it's absolutely ridiculous,” he told the Advance. “How many people would use it? It's got to be worth the effort and the cost.”

Molinaro, apparently unaware of other New York City bridge paths, including one in his own borough, also argued that “wind, winter weather and choking exhaust fumes would deter walkers and riders,” according to the Advance.

A quarter of households in the 13th Congressional District, represented by Michael Grimm and including Staten Island, Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, do not have access to a motor vehicle, according to 2011 U.S. Census numbers. In neighborhoods close to the bridge, the number is even higher, passing 50 percent in many areas. Even those who do have cars might want to avoid tolls anticipated to soon reach $15, said Harbor Ring committee member Dave ‘Paco’ Abraham.

Unlike Molinaro, other elected officials are in favor of a path across the bridge, including long-time supporter State Sen. Marty Golden and Molinaro’s Brooklyn counterpart, Borough President Marty Markowitz, who called the Harbor Ring loop "a promising idea that deserves serious consideration."

"Putting a pedestrian and bike crossing on the Verrazano Bridge is a wonderful idea -- the bridge needs it, and I’m certain New Yorkers would love it and use it," Markowitz said in a statement. "It is absolutely necessary for any retrofit to be feasible, both financially and from an engineering, security and safety perspective," he said. "I encourage the MTA and City officials to at least take a look at the potential and determine if it could work."

In 1997, the Department of City Planning hired the bridge’s architect, Ammann & Whitney, to study the feasibility of a path. The firm identified a preferred option -- two paths, one each on the north and south sides -- that, if combined with upgrades to the Brooklyn approach, would cost $50 million (adjusted to 2012 dollars). The paths would fit beneath the bridge cables, as they do on the George Washington Bridge, which was also designed by Ammann & Whitney. The Golden Gate Bridge, which the Verrazano bested for the title of world’s largest suspension bridge when it opened, also includes paths on both sides.

Someday, maybe: An illustration of a path across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Image: Ammann & Whitney, Department of City Planning

One of the alternatives discussed in the 1997 report, but never implemented, was using buses to shuttle bike riders across the Narrows in the absence of a dedicated path. In addition to Manhattan-bound express buses, S53, S93 and S79 SBS buses cross the bridge to connect with the subway in Bay Ridge.

“There is quite a lot that can be done without much delay or expense,” Abraham said. “Adding bike racks or shuttle buses is an easy, logical, cost-effective first step in the short term.”

The 1997 report noted that shuttle service should only be considered a short-term option before a path is completed, since bus schedules and rack capacity would limit the number of cyclists to 12-20 riders per hour in each direction. Fifteen years after planners made this short-term recommendation, New York -- where none of the MTA’s buses are equipped with bike racks -- remains far behind a vast majority of American cities. Two of every three U.S. transit providers have equipped their entire fleet with bike racks, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

There are two MTA capital projects moving forward that do not include plans for a bike and pedestrian path on the bridge, but which may affect its future viability. The first, scheduled to begin construction next year, would replace and widen the upper deck to accommodate a bus and carpool lane at a cost of more than $400 million. The second, which has yet to enter the design phase, would relocate ramps on the Brooklyn side between the bridge and the Belt Parkway.

Next Wednesday, Brooklyn Community Board 10 will get an update from MTA staff on the plan to widen the upper deck of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the CB 10 district office, 8119 5th Avenue in Bay Ridge.

The Transportation Alternatives Harbor Ring committee is also asking for donations to print copies of a map of the loop route.

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