This 1998 photo shows the southbound Cross Bronx Expressway (I-95 and US 1) just before the Major Deegan Expressway (I-87). (Photo by Steve Anderson.)
"If you have ever wondered if you're in Hell, then you are experiencing a rather normal spiritual quandary that you share with many. If however, you know without the shadow of a doubt that you are in Hell, then you must be on the Cross Bronx Expressway!" - Jeff Saltzman
EARLY PLANS FOR THE EXPRESSWAY: In 1936, the Regional Plan Association (RPA) proposed an extensive network of expressways and parkways covering the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area. The expressway was to give to both pleasure and commercial traffic the type of safe and uninterrupted roadway enjoyed by pleasure vehicles on existing parkways. The RPA believed that construction of a new freeway system for all types of vehicles would be the best permanent solution for New York's traffic problems.
One recommended route, a controlled-access "Cross Bronx" expressway that was to be open to all vehicles, was to connect the new George Washington Bridge with the then-proposed Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, as well as to a proposed expressway connecting the Triborough Bridge with Connecticut. (This connecting expressway would eventually be constructed as the Bruckner Expressway and the New England Thruway.)
In 1941, the New York City Planning Department recommended construction of the "Bronx Crosstown Highway." Even at that time, planners anticipated not only the needed highway service, but also the potential design and engineering challenges:
Bronx Crosstown Highway: An express crosstown facility across the middle Bronx is an essential part of a desirable highway pattern. Topographical conditions, high land values and heavily built-up areas make the construction of such a highway very difficult. However, its great importance would justify the expense involved. This highway would provide the only adequate means of east-west travel through the middle Bronx. It would connect New Jersey via the George Washington Bridge, connect with New England via Westchester County highways, and afford very essential relief for local cross-Bronx traffic. The Borough President of the Bronx has estimated that the cost of this improvement would be $17,000,000.
LEFT: Initial construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway proceeds in this 1950 photo at Castle Hill Avenue. (Photo by Bronx County Historical Society.) RIGHT: This 1959 photo shows construction crews at Grand Concourse. To place the Cross Bronx Expressway through this location, tunneling through solid rock was necessary because of the subway and utility lines that were placed beneath Grand Concourse. (Photos by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.)
AN UNPRECEDENTED ENGINEERING CHALLENGE: In late 1945, Moses proposed a system of limited-access highways that would be open to all traffic. This planned expressway system, which was to supplement the successful parkway system developed in the 1920's and 1930's, was unprecedented in scope anywhere in the world. More than one hundred miles of new expressways were proposed in the five boroughs of New York City in the 1945 highway plan.
The 8.3-mile-long, six-lane Cross Bronx Expressway, which runs through the heart of the South Bronx, was perhaps the most challenging of the expressway projects. Constructing the expressway required blasting through ridges, crossing valleys and redirecting rivers, while causing minimal disruption to the apartment buildings that topped the ridges in the area of Grand Concourse. Furthermore, the expressway had to cross 113 streets, seven expressways and parkways (either completed or under construction), one subway line, five elevated lines, three commuter rail lines, and hundreds of utility, water and sewer lines. None of these lifelines could be disrupted during construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway.
According to expressway designer Ernest Clark, constructing the seven-mile road was "always measured in inches and tenths of inches." Rock was blasted and chiseled out from supporting girders so carefully that construction crews "took the stuff out with a teaspoon."
In a 1988 interview for the PBS series The American Experience, Clark described the Cross Bronx Expressway project as follows:
When I first looked at this project, I thought, "How the hell are we going to get across here?" It was probably one of the most challenging highway projects that had been constructed, or even conceived, up until that time. I dare say that only a man like Mr. Moses would have the audacity to believe that one could push (the expressway) from one end of the Bronx to the other.
Highway engineers tried to make the Cross Bronx Expressway visually appealing and minimally disruptive to communities. Moses defended his expressway plan in The New York Times:
The expressway will not merely be a "gasoline alley" through which volumes of mixed through-traffic will flow. The high standards recently developed in the design and construction of our metropolitan parkways are being substantially adhered to in the design and construction of the new mixed-traffic expressways.
We have acquired wide rights of way, and on their borders have provided landscaping and mall parks and playgrounds. We have insisted on stone-faced bridges, attractive lighting fixtures and signs, and the most modern safety devices.
More on the design of the Cross Bronx Expressway from misc.transport.road contributors Dave Block, Ralph Herman and Mike Tantillo:
The Cross Bronx Expressway is notoriously old, traffic clogged, and in bad physical condition. However, it is fascinating to drive through all the tunnels on the Cross Bronx Expressway. The designs of the overhead arches, the brick walls, and other features are varied from section to section. In particular, two underpasses stand out:
the Grand Concourse underpass, which actually has a subway line above the Cross Bronx and below the Grand Concourse the long curved underpass east of Third Avenue
Like other expressways in New York City, the Cross Bronx Expressway was placed in a narrow right-of-way. To minimize community disruption, the expressway was placed below-grade, and was constructed with many pedestrian underpasses and overpasses.
LEFT: This 1959 photo shows the Cross Bronx Expressway nearing completion at the Third Avenue Viaduct. The photo also shows the old Third Avenue Elevated line ("El"), which ceased operations in 1973 and was dismantled shortly thereafter. RIGHT: Overview of the expressway's completed Third Avenue Viaduct in 1959. (Photos by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.)
DESIGN, CONSTRUCTION AND FUNDING: The Cross Bronx Expressway was characteristic of the pre- and early-Interstate era expressways in New York City. It was designed with six 12-foot-wide lanes (three lanes in each direction), 10-foot-wide cobblestone shoulders, and a continuous steel median guardrail.
Throughout most of its length, the expressway is depressed relative to street level. Tunnels were constructed through the ridges of the South Bronx. However, two extended viaducts were constructed at Third Avenue near Bathgate Industrial Park, and over the Bronx River.
Construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway began in the fall of 1948. The first two sections, which opened in November 1955, provided a nonstop route beginning at the Bruckner traffic circle (later built as the Bruckner interchange), west through the communities of Castle Hill and Parkchester, and ending at the Bronx River Parkway. Both "Sections 1 and 2" were constructed with matching state and Federal funds. However, by that time, Moses was running low on money to finish the rest of the expressway.
Relief soon came from Washington in the form of a new program advanced by President Eisenhower: the National System of Defense and Interstate Highways. The Federal government was to pay 90 percent of the cost for new Interstate highways, with states picking up the remaining 10 percent. Moses had enough influence to persuade officials in Washington to include toll facilities such as the George Washington Bridge in the new system. This enabled him to include the George Washington Bridge, the Trans-Manhattan Expressway and the Cross Bronx Expressway as a congruent Interstate route, as proposed in his Joint Study of Arterial Facilities between the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and the Port of New York Authority.
YESTERDAY AND TODAY… LEFT: This 1962 photo shows the Cross Bronx Expressway (I-95) at Nelson Avenue just before its completion. (Photo by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.) RIGHT: This 2001 photo was taken from the same location on the expressway. Note that some original-issue lightpoles remain. (Photo by Christopher G. Mason.)
THE BATTLE OF EAST TREMONT: More significant challenges lay ahead for Moses. In 1952, more than six years after Moses announced his plans for the Cross Bronx Expressway, construction was yet to begin on "Section 3" from the Bronx River Parkway west to the Major Deegan Expressway.
The route of "Section 3" would displace numerous residents in the East Tremont and Morris Heights neighborhoods. Specifically, 159 apartment buildings would have to be demolished, displacing 1,530 families. An alternative route was available in the area of Crotona Park that would have reduced the number of families that would have to be displaced. Moses rejected the alternative plan, despite its support from the East Tremont Neighborhood Association.
Lillian Edelstein, the energetic housewife who led the civic association, recalled the battle of East Tremont in a 1988 interview for the PBS series The American Experience as follows:
There were rumors that an expressway was coming through our area. We thought for so many years that they were just rumors. We continued our lives as though this would never happen. We thought we would be here forever.
It was a beautiful spring day when (the eviction notice) came in the mail… Everybody started buzzing about it… "we have to move out in 90 days." I remember my husband saying, "There is nothing you can do." And I said, "No way." So we formed a tenants' association.
On October 14, 1953, I had the rally which was standing room only. Every tenant who could walk was there. The public officials were there, and they promised that no one would be dislocated. And everyone went away happy. That was October. Then came November, and after the election… that was it. We lost.
In his book The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro described the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway and its impact on the East Tremont neighborhood. Below is an except::
Because most of the East Tremont Section of the Expressway runs through a deep cut, all one sees of the great road from adjoining streets is a gap in the ground. There is nothing visible rising out of that gap. But sit next to that gap - or open one of the playgrounds in one of the apartments, approximately 3,000 apartments - whose windows face the gap during rush hours, when down below, the expressway is packed solid with cars and trucks, six lanes across, and soon realizes that something is rising from that gap, filling the air above and around it, filling it with something that if one touched a match to it, would make it burn with a pale-blue flame - the flame emitted by burning carbon monoxide.
The human constitution apparently adapts itself to such fumes. One can sit next to the expressway and notices that by the fifth day, the nausea and the headache are gone. But no one knows what the inhalation of carbon monoxide - and assorted hydrocarbons emitted by automobile motors - in diluted form produces.
An alternate route, which would have run approximately two blocks to the south of the Moses plan, was offered. It would have removed six dwellings and nineteen families along with the Third Avenue Transit station. Yet, Moses refused to consider this option. It was out of character for Moses, who had no prior interest in helping mass transit, suddenly sticking up for the preservation of a bus station. Decades later, after Moses was out of power, the truth came forward, in all likelihood, Moses' friends owned vacant property or shares in the Third Avenue bus depot. They had influenced Moses to spare their investments and continue with the original route. He complied with their requests, but not those of the powerless residents of the neighborhood of East Tremont.
The following year, Bronx Borough President Lyons sought to alter plans for an elevated Bruckner Expressway, after seeing what happened in the East Tremont neighborhood. Moses responded by removing funding for the Bruckner Expressway. Fearing further loss of highway funds for the Bronx, Lyons went along with every highway proposal advanced by Moses, including the Cross Bronx Expressway.
This 1998 photo shows the southbound Cross Bronx Expressway (I-95) at Westchester Avenue. In the distance, the IRT #6 subway is elevated over Westchester Avenue. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)
COMPLETING THE LINK BETWEEN THE BRIDGES: As the 1950's drew to a close, two final segments, both recommended by the Joint Study, remained to be completed. Once these segments were completed, there would be a continuous expressway route from Throgs Neck Bridge to the George Washington Bridge.
On January 11, 1961, an extension from the "Bruckner interchange" to the Throgs Neck Bridge opened to traffic, coinciding with the opening of the Throgs Neck Bridge that day. The Cross Bronx Extension segment, which was originally one of the "wyes" of I-78, was re-designated I-295 in 1971 after the "I-78 through NYC" proposal was canceled. (However, one remaining I-78 shield along this section survives to this day at a ramp near Randall Avenue.)
One final challenge lay ahead: the section that was to carry the Cross Bronx Expressway over the Major Deegan Expressway (I-87) and the Harlem River. The interchange planned for the location was complex: a series of 22 ramps and 18 viaduct structures was to connect the two expressways. Since the Cross Bronx Expressway (and Alexander Hamilton Bridge) was more than 150 feet above the Major Deegan Expressway, a series of "spaghetti"-like ramps were built such that trucks and buses could negotiate the interchange in the small space available at that location. Even longtime Moses designer and ally Ernest Clark acknowledged the challenge of constructing this interchange.
The interchange with the Major Deegan Expressway was to lead to the $8 million, eight-lane Alexander Hamilton Bridge, a 505-foot-long steel arch span crossing 103 feet over the Harlem River. Original plans from the late 1940's called for the expansion of the adjacent Washington Bridge, a steel arch span dating back to 1889. The Joint Study recommended construction of a new Harlem River bridge to better handle the traffic demands brought on by the new Cross Bronx Expressway and the double-decking of the George Washington Bridge.
The final link of the Cross Bronx Expressway was completed in 1963, some 15 years after construction began, at a cost of $140 million. One year later, the complex interchange with the Major Deegan Expressway was completed. On December 20, 1972, construction of the $68 million Bruckner interchange was completed, replacing the "circle" that connected the Cross Bronx Expressway to the Bruckner Expressway and the Hutchinson River Parkway.
Moses said the following upon completion of the expressway:
In clearing the path for this project, we faced social, economic and engineering problems, not to speak of politics. We believe that we have acted with humane understanding and firmness. Sixteen years of study and effort went into this work. Fixing the route; relocating families, businesses and other buildings; and problems of engineering raised knotty questions. Nearly four thousand families were relocated… The Cross Bronx Expressway now takes its place as one of the strongest links in the metropolitan arterial chain.
Completion of the expressway came at a cost of three lives. In 1959, one worker died after a retaining wall collapsed following an intense rainstorm. In 1962, two workers died when a crane collapsed.
LEFT: This 1998 photo shows the southbound Cross Bronx Expressway (I-95) over the Amtrak-Metro North Northeast Corridor line, between the Bronx River Parkway and the Sheridan Expressway (I-895). (Photo by Steve Anderson.) RIGHT: This 2000 photo shows the northbound Cross Bronx Expressway (I-95) at the Sheridan Expressway, just east of Crotona Park. The Bronx River Houses project is in the background. (Photo by Alex Nitzman.)
THE IMPACT OF THE CROSS BRONX: Despite endless criticism over the years, the expressway has become not only an indispensable part of the New York area transportation system, but also an essential link in the East Coast Interstate highway network. It has been debated that highway construction brings about decay in established neighborhoods, as Caro expressed in The Power Broker and some posters have argued in the misc.transport.road newsgroup.
Others have argued that the construction of such highways have not harmed communities, and in some cases, contributed to their well-being. This argument is buttressed by research conducted by Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history and social sciences at Columbia University.
In 1940, a decade and a half before the Cross Bronx Expressway was constructed, appraisers from the Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation gave the affected East Tremont section a "D" rating, while the nearby Grand Concourse section received a "B" rating. Jackson adds the following:
For the sake of argument, however, let us assume that East Tremont in 1953 was just as The Power Broker described it. A half dozen and more other Bronx neighborhoods, however, suffered similar deterioration and decline, and they were not in the path of the Cross Bronx Expressway. Charlotte Street, for example, the most notorious slum in the United States in the 1970's and 1980's and the scene of well publicized campaign visits by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, is well away from the Cross Bronx Expressway. In other words, even if Robert Moses had redirected this controversial roadway, the likelihood is that East Tremont would have experienced dramatic demographic and economic changes. This is because highway construction has not been the only factor responsible for neighborhood change in the United States.
Ralph Herman, contributor to nycroads.com and misc.transport.road, buttresses this argument with the following:
Having grown up in New York City at the time when the Cross Bronx Expressway was built, and having some of those primarily Jewish relatives in the West Bronx, I strongly disagree with the conclusions advanced by Robert Caro. The primary reason for the decline of many middle class neighborhoods in the 1950's and 1960's was the real estate policies enacted by New York City immediately after World War II, specifically rent control. By that time, owners and landlords of multi-family housing units had little incentive to properly maintain and improve their buildings.
The middle class did not leave these multi-family buildings because of the bulldozers. These families left because they could afford more modern residences in different areas of New York City and its suburbs, thanks in large part to the improving transportation system in the region. Moreover, they left because the one- and two-bedroom apartments had no elevators, were too small for growing families, no garage space for the family Chevy, and lacked many of the conveniences the middle class today takes for granted.
Many of the most desirable neighborhoods in the New York City such as Brooklyn Heights, Riverdale and Forest Hills are located next to expressways and parkways. Most of the limited-access highway system was either completed or under construction before the interstate program was authorized by Congress in the mid 1950's.
On the other hand, neighborhoods in Brooklyn that were in the paths of the never-built Bushwick and Cross Brooklyn expressways declined anyway.
Finally, not all Bronx residents had their misgivings about Moses and the expressway. In a 1981 New York Times interview, Van Nest resident Ann Campili recalled the following upon Moses' death:
I remember Moses and the Cross Bronx well. They knocked my house down, 1005 East 176th Street. They told us we had to move. I was kind of happy about it. I know a lot of people were unhappy because they had to move, but don't listen to the complaints: they got paid nicely for those houses, those people. Nice money. They all moved out to Long Island.
I said a prayer for him. He did so many nice things. I can't think of them all offhand, but look at that nice Triborough Bridge. He did many good things for the Bronx. I know about the roads because of the Cross Bronx, but I forgot he had to do with Orchard Beach and all those playgrounds.
This 2001 photo shows the northbound Cross Bronx Expressway (I-95) approaching the Bruckner interchange construction zone. Note the newly installed variable message signs. (Photo by Christopher G. Mason.)
CURRENT AND FUTURE IMPROVEMENTS: According to the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), the Cross Bronx Expressway carries more than 175,000 vehicles per day (AADT) - about one-quarter of this amount truck traffic - along the I-95 section, and approximately 100,000 vehicles per day on the I-295 section. More than four decades of heavy traffic have taken their toll on the expressway, and in response, rehabilitation work has been underway since the early 1990's.
In June 2002, the NYSDOT finished a $155 million, three-year-long reconstruction of the "Bruckner interchange" with the Bruckner Expressway (I-278 / I-95) and the Hutchinson River Parkway. The work included the reconstruction of 14 ramps and bridge structures, installation of new drainage and electrical systems, and placement of new guardrails and signs. As an adjunct to the project, an additional $44 million was spent to upgrade the Cross Bronx Expressway Extension (I-295), including repaving the mainline, rehabilitating seven bridges and constructing a new bridge for the southbound I-695 over northbound I-295.
In the near term, the NYCDOT and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council have scheduled the following projects along the Cross Bronx Expressway:
Along the length of the expressway, the NYSDOT rehabilitate mainline and ramp pavements, implemented lighting and signing improvements, and installed protective steel netting over the rock walls. The $45 million project was completed in late 2003.
Major rehabilitation of 50 bridges along the I-95 and I-295 sections of the Cross Bronx Expressway, scheduled for completion in late 2006. $222 million has been allocated for this project.
To address the long-term demands of both motorists and communities, the NYSDOT recently initiated a "major corridor study" to improve traffic flow and aesthetics along the Cross Bronx Expressway. The NYSDOT is considering several options, including truck priority lanes, continuous service (or collector-distributor) roads, interchange reconstruction (especially of the "Highbridge interchange" with the Major Deegan Expressway), express bus service and an expanded Alexander Hamilton Bridge. One recommendation submitted by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign called for decking over the open trench sections of the expressway, creating new park space and reuniting the communities that were severed nearly a half-century earlier.
This 2002 photo shows the northbound Cross Bronx Expressway at the Bruckner interchange, where four Interstate highways (I-95, I-278, I-295 and I-678) meet with the Hutchinson River Parkway. One of the last large road projects in New York City, the Bruckner interchange, which replaced an antiquated traffic circle and cloverleaf, was completed in 1972. The reconstruction of this interchange, which began in 1999, was completed in June 2002. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
In his monthly column for Car and Travel magazine, which is published by the Automobile Club of New York, traffic engineer Mark Kulewicz provided the following prescription for the many ailments of the Cross Bronx Expressway:
Replace the undersized six-lane Cross Bronx Expressway with an eight-lane highway with full shoulders and modern on- and off-ramps.
As topography as design require, rebuild some of the highway underground, using the current alignment.
Add direct connections to the Bronx River Parkway.
Redesign the Major Deegan Expressway interchange to provide seamless connections between the two expressways and the George Washington Bridge.
Sell or lease some of the reclaimed land above the tunnel segments to offset costs; keep the rest as public parkland.
SOURCES: "Freeways Are Now Urged," The New York Times (12/13/1936); "Master Plan: Express Highways, Parkways and Major Streets," New York City Planning Department (1941); "Work Begins Soon on Bronx Expressways" by Arthur Gelb, The New York Times (10/28/1948); Joint Study of Arterial Facilities, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and the Port Authority of New York-New Jersey (1955); "Three Highway Links Open Tomorrow" by Joseph C. Ingraham, The New York Times (11/04/1955); "Cross Bronx Road Gets Revised Plan" by Joseph C. Ingraham, The New York Times (11/27/1958); "Cross Bronx Expressway and Alexander Hamilton Bridge," Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1963); Arterial Progress 1959-1965, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1965); Superhighway - Superhoax by Helen Leavitt, Doubleday and Company (1970); "The Bruckner Interchange Is Open at Last" by Frank J. Prial, The New York Times (12/21/1972); The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, Vintage Books-Random House (1974); "Robert Moses Is Remembered in the Bronx" by Anna Quindlen, The New York Times (8/01/1981); "The World That Moses Built," The American Experience, PBS (1988); Robert Moses: Single-Minded Genius by Joann P. Krieg, Heart of the Lakes Publishing (1989); The Bronx: It Was Only Yesterday, 1935-1965 by Lloyd Utman and Gary Hermalyn, The Bronx County Historical Society (1992); Divided Highways by Tom Lewis, Viking-Penguin Books (1997); "Cross Bronx Expressway" by Dean Meminger, NY1 News (10/18/1999); New York: An Illustrated History by Ric Burns, James Sanders and Lisa Ades, Alfred A. Knopf Publishing-Random House (1999); "Hell on Wheels, and Nerves" by Alan Feuer, The New York Times (9/20/2002); "Bury the Cross Bronx" by Mark Kulewicz, Car and Travel-Automobile Club of New York (May 2003); "The Cross Bronx Expressway" by Steve Alpert and Lexcie Lu, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2003); New York Metropolitan Transportation Council; New York State Department of Transportation; Dave Block; David J. Greenberger; Ralph Herman; Raymond C. Martin; Nathan W. Perry; Jeff Saltzman; Mile Tantillo; Rush Wickes; Douglas A. Willinger.
I-95, I-295 and US 1 shields by Ralph Herman. Lightposts by Jeff Saltzman.