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Environment / Climate change

The repairs to the Brooklyn Bridge are already $100m over budget, and we're starting to think it's cursed

OK, we know that things can’t really be cursed. But seriously, from day one, the Brooklyn Bridge has had a history of bad luck that’d get it a condolence card from Jonah. The recent New York Daily News story claiming that current repair works are already $100m over budget is just the latest episode in a 130 year story of illness, misery and death.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning.

The first designer was injured onsite and died 

John Augustus Roebling. Image: Public Domain.

The bridge’s original designer was John Augustus Roebling, a German immigrant and suspension bridge-design veteran. In 1869, two years into the bridge’s design process, Roebling’s foot was crushed by a ferry as he stood on a dock surveying the site.

Amazingly, this unfortunate accident resulted in his death. His toes were amputated, but he developed tetanus and died 24 days later. 

The second designer, plus lots of construction workers, got really ill

Roebling passed on the design of the bridge to his son, Washington Roebling. Washington made a few improvements  to the design, including two large pneumatic foundations known as “caissons”.

This exciting innovation proved to be his undoing. In 1870, a fire broke out in one of the foundations, and Washington helped extinguish it from within the caisson. But the compressed air inside it gave him, and several of the construction workers, decompression sickness (better known as “the bends”), leaving him bedbound for the rest of his life.

He directed the rest of the construction from a room in his house, from which he could see the bridge. The true hero here, however, was his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who taught herself the basics of engineering and bridge design in order to act as his representative on site. She was also the first to cross the bridge when it opened in 1883.

It turns out they used the wrong steel cables

Image: Postdlf at Wikimedia Commons.

Late in the construction process, it turned out that a contractor had supplied the bridge project with weaker steel cables than advertised. It was too late to replace them, so Washington added diagonal cables between the towers and the bridge to strengthen the structure.

There was a stampede during its first week 

The bridge’s opening night. Image: Brooklyn museum.

The relief once the bridge was completed was short-lived: six days after opening someone started a rumour that the bridge was going to collapse, and there was a stampede in which12 people were killed. Helpfully, the next year, P. T. Barnum led a parade of 21 circus elephants over the bridge to demonstrate its strength (and, er, publicise his circus). 

Somehow, it’s still standing 

Most bridges from the era have been demolished, but the Brooklyn Bridge is still standing, due to a quirk in the Roeblings’ calculations which made it six times stronger than it was meant to be. Since 2010, however, it’s been undergoing a series of renovations.

Unfortunately, it looks like it’s in a worse state than anyone realised. Earlier this week, the New York Daily News ran an exclusive investigation showing that the full bridge renovation is $100m over budget, and the completion date has been pushed back for the second time to 2016. Originally it was meant to be finished last year. From the piece

Engineers discovered more than 3,000 new structural “flags” on the city’s most famous span that will increase the costs of fixes and improvements from $508 million to more than $600 million, according to documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request.

These “flags” include cracks in steel, but also a large quantity of lead-based paint. The bridge has been closed for 17 full weekends since the renovations began, while indivudal lanes have been frequently closed off. Given its history, however, we’re impressed the bridge is still struggling on at all.
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