Renaming the Bridges of New York

By Bennett Liebman
Government Lawyer in Residence
Government Law Center
Albany Law School

New York State government has always had an obsession with the renaming of its major bridges and tunnels, especially naming them after deceased elected officials. We now have the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (formerly the Triborough Bridge), the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel (formerly the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel), and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Mid-Hudson Bridge.

Currently we have the saga of the Tappan Zee Bridge which is the bridge on the New York Thruway (the Governor Thomas E. Dewey Thruway) crossing the Hudson River between Tarrytown in Westchester County and Nyack in Rockland County.  The bridge opened in the mid 1950’s as the Tappan Zee Bridge. Governor Mario Cuomo in 1993 proposed a program bill to rename the bridge as the Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge, and the state legislature approved the program bill later that year (Ch. 530; L. 1993). Malcolm Wilson was a long time elected official from Westchester County, who served as Nelson Rockefeller’s Lieutenant Governor for more than three terms and for a year as New York’s fiftieth governor. In 1993, the legislature in the bridge-renaming legislation found “that a lasting tribute should be made to honor Governor Wilson’s untiring dedication and outstanding achievements on behalf of the state.”  Governor Mario Cuomo, in approving the legislation, noted that it had been “introduced at my request” and that the renaming “is a fitting tribute to the high standard of public service exemplified by Governor Wilson throughout his 36 consecutive years in public office.” Nonetheless, the state legislature at the close of the 2017 session renamed the Wilson Bridge as the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, based on the suggestion of Governor Andrew Cuomo.

But nothing in New York compares to the nine-decade saga involving the naming of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge which was completed in 1965 connects Brooklyn with Staten Island at the Narrows, which is the gateway from the Atlantic Ocean to New York harbor. When constructed, the bridge was the largest suspension bridge in the world.

Starting in the 1920’s, there was regular talk about building a bridge at the Narrows.  Throughout that time, the bridge was known as the Narrows Bridge. The talk finally became serious in 1954 as the Port Authority, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, and New York City decided to move forward on the Narrows Bridge. In 1995, state legislation was passed authorizing construction of the $220 million “Narrows Bridge.” Robert Moses, who was the czar of metropolitan New York construction at the Triborough Authority, called it “the bridge of my dreams.”

Yet this was just the beginning of the legislative fights involving the bridge. The plan for the bridge involved the condemnation of numerous homes in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. The Bay Ridge leaders—and Mario Cuomo was one of their attorneys—were able to pass bills in three consecutive years to change the route of the bridge to avoid the condemnations. The bills were vetoed by Governor Harriman in 1957 and 1958 and by Governor Rockefeller in 1959. Eventually eight hundred homes were condemned, and seven thousand people were forced to relocate.

Meanwhile, the Italian Historical Association of America, based in Brooklyn under the active leadership of its founder John LaCorte, began to argue that the Narrows Bridge should rightfully be named for the Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, who in 1524 was arguably the first white man to explore New York Harbor. Governor Harriman in 1958 (an election year) agreed and proposed the Verrazano Bridge.

In 1959, a reluctant Robert Moses, at the Triborough Authority, agreed to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge name change. The possible use of the Verrazano name, however, prompted a negative reaction from Staten Island residents, and the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce proposed the “Staten Island Bridge.”  The Staten Islanders questioned the role of Verrazano, and wondered why there was no bridge named specifically for Staten Island.  (After all, there were the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Bronx Whitestone, and Queensboro Bridges.) At the 1959 groundbreaking for the bridge, the Staten Islanders hired a plane carrying the banner, “Name It The Staten Island Bridge” to fly over the ceremonies.

Governor Rockefeller agreed with the Verrazano name and not the Staten Island contingent. The legislature in 1960 formally amended the law to state that the bridge referred to as the Narrows shall be the “Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.” This statutory enactment served to defeat the Staten Islanders and made certain that Robert Moses could not go back on his word and rename it the Narrows Bridge.

This did not end the bridge-naming controversy. People began to question the spelling of Verrazano’s last name. Were there two “z’s” or one “z” in the explorer’s name? The statue of the explorer in Battery Park, a city ferry boat, and the Triborough Authority claimed that the historical evidence supported the two “z” spelling.  The Triborough Authority even erected many two “z” road signs in anticipation of the bridge’s construction.  LaCorte fired back at the Triborough Authority by saying that he had viewed the historical documents in Italy which showed the one “z” spelling to be the proper spelling.  Most importantly, LaCorte had the trump card. The state legislature had spelled the bridge with one “z,” and the one “z” spelling prevailed.

This did not completely stop the Staten Islanders. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce called upon the legislature to name the bridge the “John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge.” Legislation was introduced to change the name of the bridge in honor of President Kennedy, but it went nowhere. For the first 50 years after it opened, we had the Verrazano (one ”z”) Bridge.

Then came 2016.  A Brooklyn College student named Robert Nash started a petition to rename the bridge with the two “z” spelling.  The petition received significant publicity. Both houses in the New York State legislature introduced legislation to rename the bridge with the two ”z” spelling. The State Senate in 2017 passed the bill, but the Assembly did not act on it.

The one constant here is that these bridge renaming issues will always be with us in New York.  The supply of bridges that can be renamed and the supply of public figures for whom they can be named for is simply inexhaustible.