The repairs to the Brooklyn Bridge are already $100m over budget, and we're starting to think it's cursed

Image: Getty.

OK, we know that things can't really be cursed. But seriously, from day one, the Brooklyn Bridge has had a history of bad luck that'd get it a condolence card from Jonah. The recent New York Daily News story claiming that current repair works are already $100m over budget is just the latest episode in a 130 year story of illness, misery and death.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's start at the beginning.

The first designer was injured onsite and died 

John Augustus Roebling. Image: Public Domain.

The bridge’s original designer was John Augustus Roebling, a German immigrant and suspension bridge-design veteran. In 1869, two years into the bridge's design process, Roebling's foot was crushed by a ferry as he stood on a dock surveying the site.

Amazingly, this unfortunate accident resulted in his death. His toes were amputated, but he developed tetanus and died 24 days later. 

The second designer, plus lots of construction workers, got really ill

Roebling passed on the design of the bridge to his son, Washington Roebling. Washington made a few improvements  to the design, including two large pneumatic foundations known as “caissons”.

This exciting innovation proved to be his undoing. In 1870, a fire broke out in one of the foundations, and Washington helped extinguish it from within the caisson. But the compressed air inside it gave him, and several of the construction workers, decompression sickness (better known as “the bends”), leaving him bedbound for the rest of his life.

He directed the rest of the construction from a room in his house, from which he could see the bridge. The true hero here, however, was his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who taught herself the basics of engineering and bridge design in order to act as his representative on site. She was also the first to cross the bridge when it opened in 1883.

It turns out they used the wrong steel cables

Image: Postdlf at Wikimedia Commons.

Late in the construction process, it turned out that a contractor had supplied the bridge project with weaker steel cables than advertised. It was too late to replace them, so Washington added diagonal cables between the towers and the bridge to strengthen the structure.

There was a stampede during its first week 

The bridge's opening night. Image: Brooklyn museum.

The relief once the bridge was completed was short-lived: six days after opening someone started a rumour that the bridge was going to collapse, and there was a stampede in which12 people were killed. Helpfully, the next year, P. T. Barnum led a parade of 21 circus elephants over the bridge to demonstrate its strength (and, er, publicise his circus). 

Somehow, it's still standing 

Most bridges from the era have been demolished, but the Brooklyn Bridge is still standing, due to a quirk in the Roeblings' calculations which made it six times stronger than it was meant to be. Since 2010, however, it’s been undergoing a series of renovations.

Unfortunately, it looks like it's in a worse state than anyone realised. Earlier this week, the New York Daily News ran an exclusive investigation showing that the full bridge renovation is $100m over budget, and the completion date has been pushed back for the second time to 2016. Originally it was meant to be finished last year. From the piece

Engineers discovered more than 3,000 new structural “flags” on the city’s most famous span that will increase the costs of fixes and improvements from $508 million to more than $600 million, according to documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request.

These “flags” include cracks in steel, but also a large quantity of lead-based paint. The bridge has been closed for 17 full weekends since the renovations began, while indivudal lanes have been frequently closed off. Given its history, however, we're impressed the bridge is still struggling on at all.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.