A Capital Idea: Painting the Brooklyn Bridge

For those of you who haven’t heard, various events are planned this Memorial Day weekend to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. As someone who has always enjoyed walking over it, and who now rides over it on a bicycle three or four says per week (I take the Manhattan Bridge home), I recommend taking a stroll. As The Great Bridge, a history of its construction, put it “to be on the promenade of the Brooklyn Bridge on a fine day, about halfway between the two towers, looking over the harbor and the city skyline, was to be at one of the two or three most soul stirring spots in America, like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon.”

You might not want to look too closely at the steel on either side, however, because if you do you’ll see all the spots of rusting bare metal. And then instead of celebrating the monument we inherited from our ancestors, you might end up thinking about the fact that, one atom of iron oxide at a time, we are taking it away from our children.

At one time, I read somewhere, the bridge had a team of painters working constantly, keeping the steel painted from one end to the other, starting over as soon as one complete paint job was finished. It was certainly the case all those years when the bridge had a toll, with a separate organization getting the money collected. According to The Great Bridge, which was written in 1972 -- before the 1970s fiscal crisis -- the bridge had a staff of 30 workers at the time, and was receiving a new coat of paint every five years. “With normal maintenance, say the engineers, the bridge will last another hundred years” the book said. If parts were replaced from time to time “as far as we are concerned, it will last forever.”

A team of painters, however, is an operating cost, meaning that with no toll it would have to be paid for by higher taxes and/or lower spending on other things. And with all the debt, and pension and health costs we didn’t have in the bridge’s first 100 years but do have now, that seems to be something no one is willing to pay for. Painting, it seems, can only take place as a “capital expenditure,” to be done very rarely and paid for by 30-year bonds. Perhaps that is what the city is waiting for -- for conditions to become so terrible, and so much to be lost, that an “investment” is required. So it goes, all over the U.S.

One of the flaws of the Congestion Pricing proposal, which I favored, is that CP would have taken the place of East River bridge tolls, with 100% of the money going to the MTA and none to the city. The city, meanwhile would have to find the money to maintain the bridges and to pay the interest on debts run up for “capital expenditures” on them over the past two decades, hundreds of millions of dollars in capital expenditures required to make up for neglect in the years since tolls were removed. Whereas the Port Authority and Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority tolls go first to maintain those crossings and then to mass transit, the CP revenues would not have been available to start painting the bridges again. That’s why I had suggested transferring responsibility form maintaining the bridges and the debts to the MTA along with the Congestion Pricing revenues. Although in fairness I see quite a few rust spots on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, too, when I drive over it. Robert Moses would not have approved.

The Democrats are the party of government, and in a “it takes one to know one” moment many Democratic opponents of CP asserted that they were against the fee because the government, specifically the MTA now run by the appointee of a Democratic Governor, couldn’t be trusted to not waste the money. They’ve just about convinced me that they are leaving us only two options -- refuse to pay more and see public services collapse, like New Jersey, or pay more and have public services collapse anyway, as in a corrupt African dictatorship. Convinced me about everything we have to pay, not just the now-dead congestion pricing charge, without which we don’t have sufficient operating or capital money for roads or transit.

You’d think, however, the city could still afford to paint, even without issuing bonds to pay for it.