This Guy Wants to Build a Pontoon Bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan

The Williamsburg Bridge is for suckers.

Feb 27 2018, 9:05pm

Images courtesy Parker Shinn

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here .

With 14 months left until the L train shutdown, the buzz around more bizarre alternatives—the gondola; the scooter share; even flying buses—has tapered off. The release of the official mitigation plan by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) in December is partially responsible for that. The city and state agencies in charge of NYC transit have now made clear what they are (or are not) getting behind—and no, it doesn’t involve a condom-like tube over the East River.

But then, late last week, a Kickstarter campaign was launched calling for the construction of a pontoon bridge over the East River. Maintained by 3,500-pound anchors, the project—deemed the ‘L-Ternative Bridge’—would consist of 37 deck barges, spanning 90 feet long, and carry only bus and pedestrian traffic, who’d pay a $1 toll to cross. The practicality of pontoon bridges worldwide is advertised as the proposal’s main selling point; in fact, the idea is that it’d be constructed in six to eight months, and dismantled once the shutdown ended.

If the campaign succeeds, donors will be awarded in toll tokens, matching the dollars they contributed. And should it fail: “If the bridge is not built we will return all funds not directly spent on design, planning, and feasibility analysis (not including the commissions taken by Kickstarter).” As of February 22nd, the campaign has raised over $3,000 out of a $50,000 goal.

The pontoon bridge’s progenitor is a man named Parker Shinn. Shinn left New York nearly three years ago for San Francisco, after living off the L for five years. “New York was really good to me—I absolutely love New York. It's my favorite city,” he told VICE. “If I could do something that returns the favor, I guess, I'd be really thankful to be able to get to do that.”

So VICE sat down with Shinn to discuss the proposal, its feasibility, and why we’re hearing about it now, 14 months out from the crisis.

VICE: First off: what is a pontoon bridge?
Parker Shinn: A pontoon bridge is basically a series of barges, or closed pontoons, that are anchored in place, and then you can build a bridge across them. So each pontoon acts as a support. Historically, they've been used by militaries for over a thousand years, and they're still very commonly used. The reason they're so frequently used by militaries and wars and other times is because they can be constructed very rapidly.

So if it's constructed very rapidly, that gives it the sense that now that we're 14 months out from the shutdown, it's still a viable idea.
Yeah, it can be built in that time, I think. Because of the amount of maritime traffic on the river, it's not as simple. I think the only way that this could possibly be feasible is if you have a section that's permanently elevated at, say, 50 feet or so, that allows a lot of the smaller traffic to pass through, unrestricted. But then you still need a section that allows larger tugs to pass through.

Right now, I'm going over Coast Guard data and tracking all the ships that pass through the East River on AIS tracking sites, trying to figure out just how frequently that retracting section would have to open. Then there are a lot of questions to how fast could it open—if a ship was coming, how quickly could you open and close the bridge, and how disruptive would that be? So there's a lot of big questions there. This adds quite a bit of complexity, so I think 14 months is possible, but it's definitely a really tight timeline. I can't say for sure.

How do you see the bridge working during the shutdown? How would it connect to other modes of transit?
I was trying to think—what's the fastest way to quickly move people from the subway at Bedford Avenue, and onto buses? Doing transfers takes a lot of time, sometimes, and so how do you expedite the transfer process? I thought, if you have kind of a bus station, if you will, directly above the Bedford Avenue stop, where people can come out and rather than having them swipe their MetroCards, as they board the bus, you have a series of turnstiles that they can walk through. The street is wide enough there to have a lane for traffic, as well as two parked cars. So, if you don't allow cars to park there, I think it'd be wide enough to have a lane for a bus to drive through, as well as a platform for people to stand on, turnstiles, and then, also, still maintain sidewalk access for the businesses.

How'd you even come up with this idea?
Well, I used to live close to the Third Avenue stop, in Manhattan. I lived there for over five years. I would take it into work fairly regularly, and the train was always so crowded that in the mornings I'd often have to let one or two trains go by before I could get into it. Everyone was crammed in like sardines. When I heard that the L train was getting shut down, I knew it was going to be a massive problem, and I enjoy thinking through problems to see if there's a solution. I knew a bit of the history of pontoon bridges. I knew they could be constructed affordably and quickly. So it seemed practical from that standpoint.

The biggest question, though, was how do you accommodate all the East River traffic? I did some more research on that, and I found an example of a bridge in Guyana that was actually very similar to the design that I had come up with, that had an elevated section, like I mentioned before, where smaller traffic could pass through unrestricted. It also had a retracting section as well for larger ships to pass. When I saw that, and dug into it a bit more, I found it was done for $38 million, and it's almost twice as long as the one I'm proposing. Granted, it was done in 2008, and I don't know how much the financial crisis affected the price that they constructed it at. But it is more simple in that it only has two lanes for traffic; it doesn't have the walkways on each side. I'm actually having some conversations with that company now, and figuring out whether or not I could get a rough estimate of what it'd cost to reconstruct a simpler version of that bridge, with the additions of the walkways on either side.

Pantoon bridge in Guyana

So, what's your background? Did you have prior experience with transit?
One thing that kind of factored into this a little bit was that I spent my whole life racing sailboats at a pretty high level. So when it comes to anything on the water, it's something that I've spent my whole life thinking about. But I currently work for a real estate investment company. When I was in New York, I was mostly working in finance. But the sailing has always been my outlet for my engineering bug, and getting to design and build things. Throughout the whole process I've been consulting with a civil engineer and a naval architect, who I've been bouncing all the ideas off of. My design is also very similar to that bridge built in Guyana, so I think it's on the right track, in terms of feasibility from an engineering standpoint.

What's the purpose, then, of the Kickstarter campaign?
I thought about ways of presenting it to the city. I thought about reaching out to some City Council members, and putting it in front of them. I just thought that launching a Kickstarter and getting some community support and interest behind it would motivate politicians to look at it more seriously. So I figured it'd be good marketing, and I could get some community support. We can use any funds that are generated to present a much more well thought-out plan to the city. The plan's working a lot better than I thought. It's been shocking to me—I've never done anything that's so in the public eye.

Have you spoken with the MTA or DOT?
Not yet. Right now, I'm mainly focusing on analyzing a lot of data on the East River traffic, trying to figure out how many of the boats that go along there would be able to pass through the elevated section versus having to open up the bridge. So I'm really trying to dig into that problem—I think it's the biggest problem there is. And also trying to figure out more about how quickly the bridge can open and close.

But I did see some people from the DOT checking out the website on my analytics. So I know they've seen it, and it may be appropriate to see it at some point soon.

[Per a DOT spokesperson: “DOT is reviewing the plan previously presented to the community in partnership with the MTA and is currently reviewing community input regarding that specific plan.”]

What do you make of the official mitigation plan? It has new bus lines, plans for the Williamsburg Bridge and major thoroughfares, expanded subway service, and ferry routes. Do you think these additions go far enough?
I don't think I really have the expertise to evaluate too closely how adequate it is. I think there are a lot of people more qualified to do that than me. But my gut says that a lot of people are gonna have an hour added to their commute, round trip.

I saw some statistics that to go from Bedford to Union Square, 35 minutes will be added to people's commute each way, on average. [That is according to an assessment of the mitigation plan by Transportation Alternatives.] And so, if you think about 225,000 people having, on average, 35 minutes added to their commute each way, and if you multiply that by the number of business days, and if you want to value their time at $20 an hour, you're over a billion dollars in terms of economic cost in time lost.

It's pretty staggering if you think about it from that standpoint. I thought, if there's going to be that kind of economic cost—and that's not counting the way it's going to affect local businesses and real estate—I thought it might warrant looking at a bit more extreme approach than what the agencies have put forward so far. I wonder if they feel like they have the freedom to propose something as radical or out of the box as this.

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