The Tappan Zee Bridge: A Case Study of Engagement at Work for America

What This Project Tells Us About Our People and Successful Bi-Partisan Leadership

Photo Credit: New York State Thruway Authority

Photo Credit: New York State Thruway Authority

The concept of Enterprise Engagement extends far beyond business into every part of American life, in the grandest way illustrated by the passion and power of the America that overcame the Nazis in World War II in what now seems like an amazingly short victory, down to the spirit that brings Americans together today to help their fellow citizens around recently flooded Baton Rouge, LA.

The Enterprise Engagement Alliance focuses on the application of Enterprise Engagement to help business, government and not-for-profit organizations run more effectively at the practical level and is strictly nonpartisan. That said, as one of our clients observed at a recent training program, the concept of Enterprise Engagement applies to the governance of America as well. Given that we are in the midst of a presidential campaign, this seems an appropriate time to address how Enterprise Engagement applies to our government’s leaders and political parties, since it’s an issue that cuts across party lines and actually may help get to the heart of our current leadership problems. More specifically, the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge near New York City illustrates what America can do when we focus on cooperation and consensus rather than partisan intransigence.

With all of the negative talk about America during this election cycle, the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge crossing the Hudson River about 20 miles north of New York City is a source of inspiration and a testament to the power, ingenuity and engagement of our people. This mammoth project with benefits for tens of millions of people for generations to come also suggests what America is capable of when our political leaders work together across the aisle and alongside American industry to get things done.

Reportedly the largest capital project in the U.S. under construction today, the new dual-span Tappan Zee suspension bridge replaces a heavily used, aging cantilever bridge that was built hastily on a skimpy Korean War-era budget to meet a short-term need. It now has exceeded its practical life of 50 years. The new bridge reportedly is engineered to last at least 100 years before it requires a major upgrade. Keep in mind that the Hudson River here is a broad tidal estuary near the Atlantic Ocean that can experience extreme weather throughout the year, including powerful tidal ice flows in winter, and that the bridge must withstand an unending flow of truck, car and motorcycle traffic from across the U.S. and Canada.

More Than a Bridge – An American Crossroads

Entrance to the Tappan Z Bridge circa 1973

Entrance to the Tappan Z Bridge circa 1973

Don’t worry about your tax dollars going only to New Yorkers; this bridge to everywhere is a symbol of what unites America in commerce and leisure. The Tappan Zee Bridge serves nearly 140,000 vehicles a day – not just commuters, but over the course of a year millions of truckers, business travelers and vacationers representing almost every industry and walk of life. The bridge is essential for truckers and travelers seeking to bypass the congestion of the New York City area and George Washington Bridge, whether they’re heading west into the heartland of America or to the Pacific; south to the Mid-Atlantic states or on to Dixie; north to upstate New York or Canada; or “down east” to New England.

During the summer, the span is filled with cars and SUVs stuffed with luggage and vacation gear, bicycles, kayaks, etc., and often with gaping kids and even parents enjoying the impressive views. One sees license plates representing every state you can image, including Alaska, not to mention the provinces of Canada.

A project of such magnitude is not without controversy and disruption. Local communities have had to contend with noise and unsightly construction areas, and a recent crane collapse produced a big scare for a few and a big traffic jam for many, but thankfully no casualties. Tremendous investments were required to address environmental concerns, including the risk of stirring up pollutants buried in the river bed and endangering shellfish and migratory fish. There even is a potential $100,000 bill for moving the nest of a pair of falcons who return every year to the towers of the old bridge.

On Schedule, On Budget

Photo Credit: New York State Thruway Authority

Photo Credit: New York State Thruway Authority

Despite the serious issues involved, bridge construction just completed the half-way mark on schedule and on budget. The total cost of nearly $4 billion came in more than $1 billion below the amount originally projected as a result of using an enormous crane known as the Left Coast Lifter, last used for bridge work in San Francisco, which enables entire prefabricated sections of the bridge structure to be lowered into place. Local newspapers, including the New York Times and suburban papers on both sides of the river, have so far remained relatively free of negative coverage, despite all of the issues, because of the relative smoothness with which the project has been run compared to others of this scale. Even its approval during the financial meltdown in the last decade took a record short time.

Allaying concerns that tolls would double when the bridge is complete in 2018, the New York State Legislature passed a bill that will freeze tolls at about $5 through 2020. In contrast, the George Washington Bridge, 20 miles to the south, itself a magnificent bridge built during the 1930s Depression, costs more than double that much to cross. (The George Washington Bridge is run by the area’s controversial interstate partnership known as the N.Y.-N.J. Port Authority, which has built and operates other major bridges, tunnels and train systems in the metropolitan area, including three of the city’s commercial airports.) The original Tappan Zee Bridge was deliberately located outside of the Port Authority’s zone of operation.

Construction of this dual-span, 3.1-mile bridge, with four poured concrete towers that will soon soar arms outstretched to their full height of nearly 42 stories, will require 14 miles of cables for the suspension portion of the bridge, 50 miles of foundation pilings, 300,000 cubic yards of concrete, and 220 million pounds of steel, all manufactured in the U.S. In fact, because the bridge construction is bound by a Buy American statute in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act under which it was in part funded, almost all of the materials come from the U.S., with many supplies and workers provided by regional and by minority- or women-owned businesses.

An Awe-Inspiring Construction Site

Driving across the old 1950s era bridge alongside the new one under construction is enough to take one’s breath away. The two new spans tower above the old rusted single span so that the new roadways leading up to the highest points will rise far more gradually than on the old bridge to reduce traffic slowdowns. Heavy, shiny new blue girders supported on towering concrete platforms march up the long span to the bridge deck’s apex nearly 13 stories above the river, making room for the freighters that ply the river below between the ports of New York City and Albany, NY. The bridge is large enough to accommodate express bus lanes during rush hour and to be later retrofitted with a commuter rail system if the economics someday make sense.

When complete, the new Tappan Zee Bridge will be the widest bridge on earth and one of the longest cable-stayed bridges in the nation, according to Wikipedia. Its eight lanes, which will include a bike and pedestrian path, span a beautiful stretch of the historic Hudson River offering distant views on clear days of the impressive Palisades cliffs and distant towers of Manhattan to the south, and of the rugged wooded hills of the Hudson Highlands to the north.

Not only will locals be able to ride their bikes or walk across the river to scenic towns on either side of the river, but intrepid cyclists visiting New York City from anywhere in the world will be able to ride a 35-mile or so circuit from Manhattan up and down the lower Hudson River Valley traversing scenic villages and historic byways on both sides of the river, and crossing the majestic river on two bridges offering stunning views from high above. One can imagine that one day we’ll see some kind of bicycle marathon along this incredible route to raise money for charity. The new bridge’s pedestrian walkway is expected to attract visitors from miles around, helping to draw commerce to the nearby villages whose downtowns have struggled since the construction of major malls nearby drew shoppers away.

The Power of Engaged Americans at Work

Photo Credit: New York State Thruway Authority

Photo Credit: New York State Thruway Authority

Aided by the enormous cranes, a surprisingly small number of workers actually do the truly dangerous work of filling the concrete and assembling the bridge. In places, they work perched on platforms 200 feet or more above the river which, at its widest point here, often exposes them to sudden temperature changes and gusting winds. Every day for these workers includes a ride across the broad often choppy river to and from their work locations. Many reportedly earn nearly $50 an hour or more. They do not work in bad weather, but make up for that unpaid time by putting in up to 60 hours a week in stretches of good weather. Most are unionized and receive generous benefits for their skills and risks they take. Despite the dangers, these are coveted jobs.

Up close, the enormity of the structure inspires awe, as does the courage of the workers one sees while crossing the old bridge alongside. This is not just hard labor; working with engineers, they conduct the complex work of building the roadway supports and towers or helping to guide the lowering of huge girders into place and completing their installation. Viewing platforms on either side of the river enable the curious to take in from afar the gargantuan project of a scale relatively seen even in the U.S.

The project, run by a joint venture known as Tappan Zee Constructors LLC, is located in temporary headquarters not far from the bridge. It employs many who have come from throughout the U.S. to live here temporarily during the project. Many commute on weekends to see spouses, children, or other loved ones at homes far away. This enormous project is in effect a temporary business bringing together accountants, engineers, purchasing teams, human resources management, etc., who will work here until the bridge is complete and then, in many cases, move back home to places throughout the nation. On a visit to the headquarters not long after construction began, I met people extraordinarily passionate about their work.

One woman has a husband and children in Alabama and commutes home on weekends. She admitted that she’d prefer to work near home, but had no trouble explaining why this job was so exciting for her. Her expression brimming with pride, she said, “This is the largest construction project in the U.S. It’s a beautifully engineered bridge that will be used by millions of people for 100 years or more. Everyone who works here knows that what we are building is something that will make lives better for millions of people, even if they don’t all appreciate it. Many of us will go back to homes far away and rarely if ever see this bridge again, but it’s something we will be proud of for the rest of our lives.”

This enormous project not only displays the breadth of America’s resources, expertise and competence – since most of this bridge is American-designed and made – but just as importantly the spirit of our workers from white collar to blue collar, many of whom are united by a deep pride in the work they do and a willingness to take risks and make sacrifices – yes, to make money, but also to help all of us live better lives or to get our own jobs done by getting across the bridge faster.

One Change Almost Everyone Can Agree On and a Lesson for Our Leaders

Photo Credit: New York State Thruway Authority

Photo Credit: New York State Thruway Authority

The relative success of this project so far also suggests what America can do when our two political parties put their own partisan interests and bickering aside and focus on consensus-building around key issues we can all agree on. If they did so more often, the media would have to follow suit and focus on the solutions instead of the play-by-play that drives up readership and ratings but which also drives many Americans mad.

Almost all Americans agree that we need safe, efficient transportation, a strong efficient defense, good education, healthcare and safety for all of our children and communities, a respectable retirement for our parents and ourselves, care for our veterans and respect for our police, and protection from companies whose products soil the environment, harm our health, or rip us off. Even most disbelievers in climate change can agree that “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” On the other hand, most would agree we have to sensibly minimize restrictions and disruptions on legitimate and responsible businesses, manage the national debt, maximize government efficiency and fairly share the tax burden without stifling the ability of all Americans to become financially successful and leave much of their money to their families and/or charities.

Even on social issues, most can agree on the need to ensure equal rights and opportunities for people of all races, economic classes and genders, to protect the freedom of all to practice their religions and ways of life in peace without infringing on the rights of others who practice otherwise, to fight terrorism and reduce illegal immigration, to remain “a shining city on the hill” for all of the world to admire, to minimize unwanted pregnancies and abortion, and to preserve the right of responsible people to bear arms while protecting citizens from military-style attacks and our police from weapons that can pierce their bullet-proof vests.

Admittedly, there is feverish disagreement over how to reach these goals, but the change we can all agree on is for our political leaders, parties and the media to stop fomenting tribal warfare and start reaching across aisles everywhere to find solutions we can agree on. American power is built upon our respect and love for all of our fellow citizens and our ability to work together, compromise and forge mutually-agreed-upon solutions as we have done during so many crises in our history. That’s the consensus and power that triumphed in World War II and that on a smaller scale is building the magnificent new Tappan Zee bridge.

Almost every New Yorker gives our state legislature low marks for consensus-building and action, but in this instance our leaders sensibly came together to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge that America can be proud of, funded by both local and federal dollars, as well as by the businesses and people who use it.

Enterprise Engagement starts at the top, not only in business and at not-for-profits, but in government as well. Consensus and action requires a halt to finger-pointing and the leadership of both our executive and legislative branches, to rise up and focus on compromise and action rather than on the obstructionism and paralysis that surely is at the heart of so much anger in both parties. How about voting for candidates who run on specific platforms that demonstrate a willingness to compromise? How is it that compromise and consensus became an anathema to so many?

Until enough voters in both parties look beyond their own partisan favorites to support candidates in either party dedicated to finding a consensus and working across the aisle, we can count on more of the same paralysis and frustration.


4 comments for “The Tappan Zee Bridge: A Case Study of Engagement at Work for America”

  1. A persuasive call for a politicians in both parties to stop there partisan bickering and come together on great and ambitious projects that address our sorely deteriorating infrastructure. Alas, I feel the fly in the ointment is the Republicans’ apparent believe that government cannot accomplish anything of worth besides waging war.

    Time and again the right wingers have stymied any significant attempts to undertake significant infrastructure building because of their hostility to anything that would raise taxes.

    Democrats seem open to compromise and dealmaking Republicans seem to jump at the chance to try to shut down the government or filibuster… Anything to stop progress. How do you engage with those who hold that kind of attitude?

    Posted by Andy Mazer | August 29, 2016, 9:24 pm
  2. Thanks for your comment. The point of my post is that readers and voters should judge candidates on their ability to find common ground, and not to make such judgments for them.

    In today’s New York Times, none other than Glenn Beck wrote:

    I pray, knowing my words will likely fall on many deaf ears as I am a flawed messenger, that cultivating empathy for one another, in our communities and in the news media, from our politicians and in our politics, is the path we must choose as a nation. If we don’t, what we have seen this year will be just the beginning of the hate we are about to unleash. America, and the world, has one path to “united we stand and divided we fall.” Which path will we take? Which one will you?


    Posted by Bruce Bolger | September 7, 2016, 2:05 pm
  3. Its interesting that Glenn Beck is calling for empathy and understanding amongst Americans of all political groups when his latest book its titled “Liars: How Progressives Exploit Our Fear for Power and Control”.

    It seems to me that for a man whose career has long been based on flinging his own lies, slander, baseless accusations and fear-mongering… not to mention villianizing those who disagree with him— for a man with this history to now call for an empathetic group hug– well, it’s a bit much for me to accept that on face value.

    Now, if Beck were to go to Africa for a year and help, say, Doctors without Borders tend to malaria-striker kids… well, that might give me pause.

    Posted by Andrew Mazer | September 7, 2016, 2:33 pm
  4. For the healing to begin, someone has to reach out. Every attempt to find common ground should be accepted at face value if we are ever going to climb out of this spiral of hate and divisiveness. If Glenn Beck’s actions going forward are true to the spirit of his column, it might inspire some Congressional leaders to take politics out of their deliberations and find common ground. Someone has to sincerely start the process of re-setting the tone of the dialog in our nation: let it be Glenn Beck.

    Posted by Bruce Bolger | September 8, 2016, 4:47 pm

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