In 1921, the Port of New York Authority (now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) was created to oversee transportation in the Port of New York and New Jersey. At the time, bridges in New York City were being built at a brisk pace. Not long after, in 1928, the Port Authority opened its first two bridges between New Jersey and Staten Island: the Goethals Bridge and the Outerbridge Crossing. There was plans for a third bridge to Staten Island near Bayonne, New Jersey, across the Kill Van Kull. All three bridges were built to complement the traffic from a future fourth bridge or a tunnel from Staten Island to Brooklyn.
This third bridge was to be designed by master bridge-builder Othmar Ammann and the architect Cass Gilbert, who decided to build the bridge parallel to the street networks of both Bayonne and Port Richmond. This required a longer span than if the bridge had been built perpendicular to the Kill Van Kull. Ammann, the master bridge builder and chief architect of the Port Authority, chose the steel arch design after rejecting a cantilever and suspension design as expensive and impractical for the site, given a requirement by the Port Authority that the bridge must be able to accommodate the future addition of rapid transit tracks.
The eventual design of the bridge called for a graceful arch that soars 266 feet (81 m) above the Kill Van Kull and supports a road bed for 1,675 feet (511 m) without intermediary piers, though two viaducts at either end of the main span would allow the roadway to rise up to the height of the arch. In particular, the Port Richmond viaduct was 2,010 feet (610 m) long and the Bayonne viaduct was 3,010 feet (920 m) long, supported by piers that ranged from 20 to 110 feet (6.1 to 33.5 m) tall. The total length of the bridge is 5,780 feet (1,760 m) with a mid-span clearance above the water of 150 feet (46 m) in order to make room for the United States Navy's tallest ships at the time. The arch resembles a parabola, but is made up of 40 linear segments. The design of the steel arch is influenced by the Hell Gate Bridge designed by Ammann's mentor, Gustav Lindenthal. Gilbert had designed an ornamental granite sheathing over the steelwork as part of the original proposal, but as in the case of the George Washington Bridge, the stone sheathing was eliminated in order to lower the cost of the bridge due to material shortages during the Great Depression, leaving the steel trusses exposed on both bridges. It was the first bridge to employ the use of manganese steel for the main arch ribs and rivets.
Construction on the bridge began in 1928. At the time, it was supposed to be open in early 1932 and was supposed to cost $16 million (equivalent to $223,000,000 in 2016), but it ended up costing only $13 million to build (equivalent to $181,000,000 in 2016). The bridge had to be built without blocking shipping traffic on the Kill Van Kull. To do this, engineers used hydraulic jacks to support the two sides of the arch while the two pieces, consisting of prefabricated truss segments that were made up of high-strength alloy steel, were being built toward a point in a middle. Afterward, prefabricated pieces of the roadway's support structure were hung from cables connected to the arch.
The Bayonne Bridge opened on November 15, 1931, after dedication ceremonies were held the previous day. On opening day, about 7,000 pedestrians and 17,000 vehicles crossed the bridge. The Bayonne Bridge's dedication ceremony was attended by David M. Dow, the Secretary for Australia in the United States, and the same pair of golden shears used to cut the ribbon was sent to Australia for the ribbon-cutting of the Sydney Harbour Bridge four months later. After the ceremony in Sydney, the scissor blades were separated and one was sent back to the Port Authority. Time referred to the symmetric detail of the bridge as "impressive and haunting," while the commune of Bayonne in France sent a congratulatory telegram.
When the Bayonne Bridge opened, it was the longest steel arch bridge in the world, barely surpassing its more massive-arched "sister bridge" in Australia—the Sydney Harbour Bridge—by 25 feet (7.6 m) and taking the distinction from the Hell Gate Bridge a few miles to the northeast. The American Institute for Steel Construction selected the Bayonne Bridge as the "Most Beautiful Steel Bridge" in 1931, choosing it over the George Washington Bridge for that status. The Bayonne Bridge has a lightweight design, weighing only 16,000 short tons (15,000 t) compared to the Sydney Harbour Bridge's 37,000 short tons (34,000 t). The Bayonne Bridge is also half as wide and 117 feet (36 m) shorter than its sister bridge, with its roadway being 85 feet (26 m) wide and the arch's highest point being 325 feet (99 m).
In 1951, twenty years after the bridge opened, the New Jersey tollbooth was re-landscaped by the Port Authority and the City of Bayonne, and in 1956, some land under the New Jersey approach viaduct was set aside to create the Juliette Street Playground. The Bergen Point Ferry, which paralleled the bridge, stayed in service until 1961. A new toll plaza in Staten Island was created in 1964 and made into one-way operation in 1970, with tolls only being collected for vehicles entering the island.
The bridge became a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1985. It was the longest through arch bridge in the world until 1977, when the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia surpassed it in length. The Bayonne Bridge is still the world's second longest such bridge outside of China, after the New River Gorge Bridge.
In the 2000s, the Port Authority started planning to raise the roadbed within the existing arch to allow larger container ships to pass underneath. The expansion of the Panama Canal, which allows the passage of larger ships coming from Asia to reach the East Coast, was the impetus for the Port Authority's decision to raise the height of the bridge. At the time, the span presented a difficult obstacle to large container ships passing under it on the way to and from Newark Bay. Its clearance of between 151 to 156 feet (46–48 m) above the Kill Van Kull depending on the tide meant that some contemporary ships, which could reach 175 feet (53 m) above the waterline, had to fold down antenna masts, take on ballast, or wait for low tide to pass through.
The problem became more serious since the expansion project allowed larger new-Panamax ships through the canal. If the problem were not fixed soon, the Port of New York and New Jersey could have lost significant shipping business to other ports such as Charleston, South Carolina. In August 2009, the Port Authority started a planning analysis to determine how to fix the clearance problem.
The Port Authority commissioned a study of the question by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, completed in 2009, and authorized up to $10 million for planning and engineering services to develop options to deal with the bridge's low clearance. The Army Corps of Engineers study looked at three options for the bridge, besides the no-build option. The quickest option they identified, and the one ultimately chosen, was a $1.32 billion project to jack up the bridge to increase its height by 40 percent, which could be accomplished by 2019 at the earliest. It will need a clearance of 215 feet (66 m) to handle the new ships. Another option presented was to build a new cable-stayed bridge, which would have cost $2.15 billion and taken until 2022. The most expensive option would be to get rid of the bridge altogether and replace it with either a bored tunnel or a immersed tunnel through which traffic would traverse under the Kill Van Kull. This option would have taken the longest, being complete in 2024 and costing $2.2 to $3 billion.
Another study, an environmental review by the U.S. Coast Guard, was commissioned in 2009. The review was required because the project would take place over a navigable waterway. The study cost over $2 million, took four years, and resulted in 5,000 pages of reviews. Despite its duration and cost, which precluded the start of construction until 2013, it was one of the Coast Guard's quickest environmental reviews for such a major project. In March 2012, the Port Authority submitted a request to the federal government for an expedited environmental review process, which was approved in July 2012 even though some residents in Newark and Staten Island said they wanted the Coast Guard to conduct a full environmental review.
According to the Port Authority, the “Raise the Roadway” project will have many benefits, the first being that it would would allow larger, more environmentally friendly ships to pass through the port. As a result of the project, the proportion of the arc above the roadway would be reduced, with only 22 cables suspending the new roadway below the arch as opposed to 30 cables holding up the old roadway. As for the roadway itself, the single roadway would be replaced by two new roadway decks with new supporting piers and approach roads. NY/NJ 440 would be widened from one 40-foot (12 m) roadway with no shoulders and four 10-foot (3.0 m) lanes, to two 30-foot-9-inch (9.37 m) roadways with two 12-foot (3.7 m) lanes each, a median divider, and a 4-foot-9-inch (1.45 m) shoulders. There would also be a bikeway and walkway the entire length of the bridge, with access ramps to replace stairs. The design also allows for future transit service such as light rail. Extending the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line to Staten Island over the bridge has been proposed, though final design plans do not include a rapid transit component. Finally, the project would support nearly 2,800 jobs and $240–380 million in wages throughout the construction industry, as well as $1.6 billion of economic activity.
The Corps of Engineers estimated that raising the Bayonne Bridge would produce a $3.3 billion national benefit, noting that 12% of all US international containers pass under the bridge, that the port indirectly creates 269,900 jobs, and that port activity generates $11 billion in annual national wages. The project would allow 12,000-container ships to pass under the bridge, increasing capacity; before the project, the largest ships allowed to pass under the bridge were 9,000-container ships. Congressmen from both New York and New Jersey pressed the Port Authority to act quickly, despite lowered revenues from reduced traffic at the Port Authority's six crossings. The Port Authority announced its official plan in 2011. The Coast Guard held two public meetings about the bridge in 2012. Improvements at Port Jersey on the Upper New York Bay were also underway.
The Port Authority believed that it was possible to build the new roadway without interrupting traffic flow between Staten Island and Bayonne. In July 2012, the Port Authority announced construction would begin in summer 2013, to be completed by 2017. In this timeline, removal of the existing roadway would be completed by late 2015, in time for the opening of the widened Panama Canal. The project would cost $1.3 billion and last five years.
One of the challenges faced by the project is the tight confines of the construction area: residential homes lie less than 20 ft (6.1 m) from the work site, though none of them are in the path of the construction itself. In 2014, Staten Islanders living near the Port Richmond work site filed a lawsuit, alleging that the construction work violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by exposing predominately-minority communities in Port Richmond to toxins. In 2015, some Bayonne residents lodged complaints due to excessive noise, vibrations, dust over their neighborhood, and construction debris falling off the bridge (such as paint chips), though the Port Authority later settled these complaints. The project would also necessitate the temporary closure of a park in Bayonne. Additionally, the Bayonne Bridge will remain open to vehicle traffic throughout the construction.
On April 24, 2013, the Port Authority's Board of Commissioners awarded a $743.3 million contract to a joint venture of Skanska Koch and Kiewit Infrastructure Company. The bridge's clearance would be raised to 215 feet (66 m) wih the construction of a new roadway above the existing roadway within the current arch structure. The construction involved building support columns first, then adding prefabricated road segments using a gantry crane that rolls on top of the arch. The gantry crane would construct one rope-supported section of the new roadway at a time, using a temporary beam to support the existing roadway while each rope is replaced. The existing roadway would then be removed. Temporary bridge closures allowed new floor beams to be attached to the arch's ropes in order to support steel stringers that would hold up the new roadway. This work was expedited by Barack Obama's presidential administration due to the importance of the project to national commerce, being one of the first applicants to Obama's "We Can't Wait" initiative of important infrastructure projects. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also considered the project a high priority for his state.
The pedestrian walkway, cantilevered from the western side of the roadway, was temporarily closed on August 5, 2013, for reconstruction. The walkway is scheduled to reopen in 2017. In 2015, the completion date was delayed to 2019, supposedly due to unfavorable weather conditions in the winter of 2014–2015. The Port Authority revised its timeline, expecting traffic to be shifted to the new roadway in early 2017, the old roadway to be removed by late 2017, and the project to be completed in mid-2019 with the completion of the roadway for southbound traffic. In November 2016, the future northbound span, intended temporarily for both directions of travel, was completed.
Early in the morning of February 20, 2017 the completed eastern (ultimately northbound) portion of the raised roadway opened for traffic, with one lane in each direction, and the old lower roadway was permanently closed. The entire roadway is scheduled to be completed in 2019, at which time there will be two lanes in each direction and a pedestrian walkway. Also on February 20, the Bayonne Bridge became the first Port Authority crossing to use a fully automated and cashless electronic toll collection system. All vehicles proceed without stopping at the toll plaza. Those with E-ZPass are billed in the usual way, while cameras record the license plate numbers of those without an E-ZPass tag and their registered owners soon receive a toll bill by mail.
From January to November 2016, the Bayonne Bridge carried about 4,500 vehicles per day. The E-ZPass automatic collection system was used by 91% of drivers for toll payment. In 2011, it carried an average of 19,378 vehicles per day, which dropped to a daily average of 15,221 vehicles in 2014 after construction started. The Bayonne Bridge is more lightly trafficked than any other Port Authority crossing.
In September 2007, MTA Regional Bus Operations began a limited-stop bus route (the S89) that crosses the bridge. The route's termini are the Hylan Boulevard bus terminal in Eltingville, Staten Island and the 34th Street Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Station in Bayonne. This is the first interstate bus service offered by the MTA.
Tolls are collected on vehicles traveling into Staten Island (there is no toll for vehicles traveling into New Jersey). As of December 6, 2015, the cash tolls going from Bayonne to Staten Island are $15 for cars and motorcycles, up from $14; there is no toll for passenger vehicles going from Staten Island to Bayonne. E-ZPass users are charged $10.50 for cars, up from $9.75, and $9.50 for motorcycles, up from $8.75 during off-peak hours (outside of 6–10 a.m. and 4–8 p.m. on the weekdays; and outside of 11 a.m.–9 p.m. on the weekends) and $12.50 for cars and $11.50 for motorcycles, up from $11.75 and $10.75 during peak hours (6–10 a.m. and 4–8 p.m. on the weekdays; and 11 a.m.–9 p.m. on the weekends). Since February 20, 2017, Toll collection has been electronic-only. Non-E-ZPass drivers will have tolls sent by the mail.
The Bayonne Bridge appears in the 2005 science fiction film War of the Worlds, being shown in the background several times in the scenes set in the lead character's Bayonne home; it is destroyed in an attack by aliens. The bridge and surrounding Bayonne community was also featured in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind and the HBO prison drama Oz.