Volume 78 / Number 5 - July 2 - July 8, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since
1933

Talking Point

Authority should be zapped for Pier 40’s sorry state

By Bill Hine And Robert Smith

With limited financial assistance from the state and city, the Hudson River Park Trust needs major funding to stabilize Pier 40, a 15-acre structure with the potential to become the outstanding recreational facility of the park.

Based on documented sources, the stabilization problems were caused by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operated Pier 40 during a 16-year period. Starting in 1971, the Port Authority ignored requirements of the lease to maintain an electrical cathodic system that was critical to protect the steel piles in salt water. According to an engineering report from the P.A.’s consultants, by 1987 many of the massive H-section piles had deteriorated to a thickness of only an eighth of an inch. What was originally the largest concrete structure in the world with pre-stressed frame and decking had reached the state of imminent collapse.

The conventional solution would have the P.A. be responsible for repairs. In this case, that could be accomplished through the Governor’s Office without a lawsuit.

Just as advances in maritime technology were instrumental in making New York the world’s leading port during the last century, Pier 40 could set standards for Mayor Bloomberg’s interest in expanding the use of photovoltaics to generate electricity.

There is no justifiable reason to shift financial burden, amounting to tens of millions of dollars, from the Port Authority to others who are not responsible for the pier’s deterioration in the first place.

Contrary to a recent New York Times article that stated the city turned off the electrical cathodic system, documentation shows otherwise. Whether this happened when the Port Authority took control of the pier from the Holland-America Lines in 1971 or earlier needs to be verified. But, the P.A. repeatedly ignored its engineering consultants’ advice to protect the piling system. Failure to do so has resulted in permanent damage to the 15-acre pier — irreparable damage, even when piles are replaced.

Did the Port Authority operate Pier 40 without notifying the city, then the state, that its actions would destroy the pier? Is that why the New York State Department of Transportation initiated legal action against the P.A. for its negligence when news of the structural crisis became public knowledge? During that period, the P.A. was developing containerized cargo facilities at the port of Newark. And, a 1973 state D.O.T. report shows that the P.A. expressed interest in eliminating cargo movement through Pier 40, even though the shipping lines wanted to continue using the pier.

With the ability to veto P.A. projects, the governors of New York and New Jersey have ultimate control over the agency. This could avoid the time, complications and restrictions of a lawsuit. And, by New York cooperating with New Jersey in the matter, state properties on both sides of the Hudson could receive better treatment.

Port Authority representatives appeared at a Community Board 2 Waterfront Committee meeting in 1987 with the startling news: The agency had been notified by its consulting engineers that Pier 40 could fall into the river at any time; cars that were parked there had to be removed to reduce excessive weight. What we were not told appeared in New York Newsday, with a series of articles by an investigative reporter, Michael Moss. Starting Sept. 2, 1987, his reports continued through Dec. 29 of that year.

Moss had several interviews with P.A. officials. He went through engineering reports and correspondence from the P.A.’s consulting geotechnical engineers, Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade and Douglas, Inc. Lawsuits were investigated.

The Oct. 17, 1962, press release, prepared by the city’s Department of Marine and Aviation for Pier 40’s opening, contained information about planning, design, construction, the cathodic system and the original lease with Holland-America Line. The lease required Holland-America Line to maintain the pier (including its cathodic system) in first-class condition. Insurance was required to protect the city’s investment. Was that insurance continued?

In 1973 a state D.O.T. report revealed that the original lease allowed the city and P.A. to take charge of the pier in 1971, prior to the end of the original 20-year lease. State D.O.T. purchased Pier 40 and other waterfront property in 1982 while studying options to rebuild the West Side Highway, which included the ill-fated Westway project.

Moss reported: “In a two-page letter dated Aug. 28, 1987, Parsons said that by then rust had badly eaten the pilings — many had narrowed to one-eighth of an inch or less just below the water line.”

Parsons concluded: “It is our judgment that Pier 40 is in danger of collapse.”

Only at that point did the P.A. take action: “Authority police were brought to the pier the next day, Sat., Aug. 29…” to oversee the removal of vehicles from Pier 40. Sensing devices were attached to alarms on the pier, to alert people if a collapse was underway, so they could literally run for their lives. When questioned later in court about this during a lawsuit, the P.A.’s attorney confirmed it by saying, “They run, exactly, your honor.”

Although Parsons had warned against docking ships at the pier, since they would transfer tidal pressure to the weakened structure, four large cargo ships were docked there in the period leading up to the pier’s closure.

Moss quoted Derwood Hall, the P.A.’s general manager for marine operations: “We’re paying [for repairs] as we go, but how that ends up is subject to negotiations with the state.” According to Moss’s report: “As many as 70 workers were drilling holes and fastening steel braces onto many of the pier’s 3,800 piles.” (Elsewhere, the piles have been listed as 3,600 and 3,500.)

In his Dec. 7, 1987, article, Moss stated that while the authority was maintaining public composure, court proceedings indicated that authority officials feared the huge structure “would suddenly plunge into the Hudson River.” But, in spite of legal challenges — including one from state D.O.T. that accused the authority “of failing to maintain the pier as required by the lease” — the Port Authority attempted to claim “that it properly maintained Pier 40.” Moss countered that the Parsons report and court records “show that the Authority was fully informed of the decay.”

Some may assume that regaining the pier’s original load-bearing capacity for park use isn’t necessary. That is likely true for the courtyard, where ball games have replace its cargo facility. But, the primary deterioration is reportedly under the superstructure, where weight of the huge concrete building, and what is expected to be stacked parking units for cars, could equal or exceed what was there 40 years ago.

The Trust could work with the Governor’s Office to have the Port Authority be accountable for the extreme damage that it knowingly created. This option would be the best for the public, the city and the state.

Hine and Smith are members, Save The Piers

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