On Roosevelt Island

When A Bridge Breaks On Roosevelt Island, It's Different

Updated 3 years ago Peter McCarthy
Waiting Out the Bridge Closure, Three Hours In
Waiting Out the Bridge Closure, Three Hours In
© Deborah Julian / Roosevelt Island Daily

Could the timing have been much worse? A breakdown on the Roosevelt Island Bridge during Friday rush hour brings discomfort, surprises and longer questions.

Dusk was surrendering to night by the time we checked back on the traffic jam caused by a late afternoon Roosevelt Island Bridge breakdown. Frustration and worry were visible, but I expected worse.

Motionless cars were backed up in both directions from a point of congestion at the bottom of the helix ramp. One worry, an ambulance with its lights flashing idled just past the turn, unable to advance toward whatever hospital it needed to reach in Queens. A city police car was stuck in the usually abandoned bus turnaround in front of Motorgate.

Stranded MTA buses could be identified by their route indicators above the frozen stream of cars.

A man stood beside his vehicle, the passenger door open, on the stretch of Main Street that passes Manhattan Park. In front of him, three women in nursing uniforms passed the time chatting.

"How long have you been stuck?"

"Since it started, around 3:30," he answered.

It was now 6:30.

"They said the mechanic won't be here to fix it until 8:30," he added.

News about the mechanic's estimated arrival had trickled down the line and beyond. A Manhattan Park concierge repeated it, a few minutes later.

Remarkable immediately was how calm everyone who got stuck seemed. After three hours. It was Friday. Weekend plans were in jeopardy, some already shot. Anyone with a dinner date no longer had hope of keeping it.

There was grumbling but no anger. Drivers who on a normal day would have been home hours ago quietly endured.

This was not very New York.

After a while, one reason for the relative serenity became clear. Public Safety officers were working the stranded crowd, stopping to answer questions, offering whatever information they had, easing frustration.

Having endured my share of traffic jams, I remembered that, for me anyway, the greatest source of aggravation was the not knowing what was going on, if anything was being done about it and when to expect a solution.

Public Safety's training, what we've come to expect under Jack McManus's leadership, worked to cool tempers and maintain calm, amazingly, through what turned out to be a four hour wait.

And there was more.

Somehow, the traffic jam had been managed to allow red buses to shuttle back and forth along Main Street, weaving through breaks in the lines. Inconveniences for local residents' were largely avoided.

I could only guess how they pulled it off, but when I got upstairs and looked out from ten floors above, I was startled to see the line of cars extending no farther than the firehouse. Someone had kept traffic from piling up all the way back to Goldwater Hospital's parking lots, as you'd expect.

Another thing - there were no horns honking with impatience. Were we still in New York?

Going back to the street, pausing to have small conversations with strangers about how lucky we were to not be drivers, I felt as a reporter that I needed to find out more.

Should I get more photos to help tell the story?

Maybe I should stop at RIOC and see if anyone was still around... (Apparently, they weren't. An emailed promise to update everyone as soon as the bridge closure was resolved went unfulfilled.)

I thought about dropping in on Public Safety to see what I could find out there, An hour before the mechanic's expected arrival remained, and even after that, repairs still had to be made. So, what did Public Safety have in mind  if the jam up lasted much longer, maybe even overnight...?

But then, my wife noticed that some cars and vans seemed to have moved up a bit.

I interrupted an officer standing in traffic near the helix: "Any idea how much longer this will last?"

"It's fixed," he told me, smiling. He probably wanted to get home too.


The stalled ambulance, lights still flashing, started rolling steadily up the ramp.

"Great news," I told the officer. "You guys did a great job. Thanks."

I was in that fuzzy zone between involved resident and objective reporter.

Wasting no more time, I hurried home to my laptop. My early email to subscribers about the bridge closure needed to be updated. 

In the days and weeks ahead, those of us who live on Roosevelt Island and count on the bridge to Queens for shopping and other travel should have a conversation that considers more than our daily needs.

Public transit is fragile, as we learned on September 11, 2001 and were reminded with Superstorm Sandy. How vital is the span across the East River channel if an evacuation becomes necessary? How long would it take to move 12,000 people, many disabled or elderly, off this island?

It's a conversation we should have because the threat is real. RIOC needs to lead it with the kind of calm diligence and skill we saw last night. Residents need to be assured that a plan, one made flexible by an awareness that triggering events are likely to be as unpredictable as Sandy was, are on the table.

The traffic jam is over by 8:00, but the conversation should just be beginning.

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