Highway Robbery

The Last Three Miles, Steven Hart, The New Press.

Each day, over 100,000 cars cross the Pulaski Skyway, a span of bridges that feed in and out of the Holland Tunnel connecting Manhattan and New Jersey. Traffic-choked, with hair-raising curves, slopes and exits, the Skyway is loved by few, but needed by many.

In the “The Last Three Miles,” Steven Hart describes how the building of the Skyway, completed in 1932, became a battleground for competing special interests. The War Department’s requirement of a 135 foot high span in case warships needed to pass beneath resulted in unusually steep grades at either end of the bridge. Exits to towns where local political boss Frank Hague wanted to create business (and win votes) were jammed into the design. 

The project was also marred by labor fights. Hague sided with the national building conglomerates who demanded non-union labor. Union picketers created a gauntlet for the non-union workers and one clash led to the death of a worker. The trial, in which almost every terrified witness backed down from their previous statements when put on the stand, acquitted everyone involved. 

Hart does a fine job of explaining the background of the project and paints a devastating portrait of the iron-fisted political machine that ruled Hudson County. The book, however, would benefit from some maps to give readers a better idea of the area; those not familiar with Jersey City can lose their way in the descriptions. 

Hart describes the Pulaski Skyway as “a monument to failure.” Indeed, the skyway has its flaws, some of which could have been foreseen at the time, others that were difficult to imagine in those early days of highway design. However, it has stood for 75 years, with millions of cars passing over it annually. It may not be perfect, but it’s hard to call it a failure. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed four months after it opened in 1940. Now that’s a failure.