Officials from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey provided a first look Tuesday at the Bayonne Bridge's elevated roadway, part of a $1.3 billion project to allow bigger cargo ships to call on New York City-area ports.
The bridge connects Bayonne, New Jersey, and Staten Island, New York, and is the least-used of the Port Authority's four New York-area bridges in terms of numbers of vehicles.
It is the most vital of the four for shipping, however, because its clearance above the water - 151 feet at its highest - has limited the size of vessels that can pass underneath on their way to the ports of Newark and Elizabeth. Often, the ships' masts pass mere feet below the underside of the span.
The Port Authority's solution was to embark on a complex engineering and construction challenge: build another roadway on top of the existing one while keeping the lower roadway open for traffic, albeit with reduced access.
The lower roadway will then be removed, adding more than 60 feet of clearance and making room for larger ships that have begun traversing the newly expanded Panama Canal since June.
"We have to maintain our competitive status," Steven Plate, the Port Authority's chief of major capital projects, said Tuesday as rain and high winds whipped across the upper road deck. "Right now we can push through ships as large as 7,000 containers, but we can grow that to 14,000 containers on one ship."
A separate, recently completed project deepened navigation channels in New York harbor, at a cost of $2.1 billion, in anticipation of the larger ships.
The Port Authority initially hoped to accommodate larger ships by late this year, but officials revised that estimate a year ago, citing construction delays related to weather and structural problems with the bridge's steel. Construction began in 2013.
The larger ships will be able to pass under by late next year, Plate said. Vehicles traveling in both directions will be able to use the upper roadway's northbound lanes by mid-2017, and the entire project is expected to be completed by mid-2019, he said.
The new roadway will also have wider lanes and a median, and will be the first Port Authority bridge to use cashless tolls, said Cedrick Fulton, the agency's head of bridges, tunnels and terminals.