Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: The Bridge-and-Tunnel Problem

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: The Bridge-and-Tunnel Problem

Article excerpt

The police began searching trucks and vans at the city's river crossings again last week, following reports that the captured Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah had claimed that his organization was targeting New York City landmarks. Traffic snarled, reminding some people of the epic jam of September 27th, when truck inspections and new restrictions on single-occupancy vehicles helped produce what Department of Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall called "the single worst traffic jam in New York City history." But if terrorism does return to New York, and if it comes in the form of a car bomb, one can expect these searches to become routine, and that poses a serious problem. Virtually everything the city consumes and throws away arrives and departs by truck. Without trucks, New York can't function.

Airport security is what people worry about when they think of terrorism, but in fact the overwhelming majority of transportation targets struck by terrorists around the world involve surface transport: bridges, tunnels, roads, rails. David Hensing, a transportation expert at the Science Applications International Corporation (S.A.I.C.), which recently finished a study assessing the vulnerability of bridges and tunnels across the nation, said last week, "This is quite a new thing for people like me. We know a lot about building roads and bridges, but we've never thought about defending them before."

The George Washington Bridge, the city's busiest river crossing, carries 317,618 vehicles a day. The Brooklyn Bridge, which Zubaydah mentioned as a target (and which closed for an hour on Wednesday morning while the police examined a stray backpack), carries 147,767 vehicles a day, but no trucks. How hard would it be to destroy one of these structures? "It would be possible to drop a bridge, if you knew what you were doing," Hensing said. "It would be tough, but you could do it." Maria Lehman, a civil engineer who is the commissioner of Erie County's Department of Public Works, said that the vulnerable spots on any bridge are the towers and the points where the cables attach to the towers. But in New York the bridges are surveyed by cameras, and now by security patrols. "It would be impossible to put a device in a sensitive area without someone noticing," Lehman said.

The East River bridges were all built to carry trains (the Brooklyn Bridge used to have four tracks on it), so they're extremely strong. …

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