It is rarely easy to give a face-lift to a New York City icon. Repainting the massive steel support struts of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, that sleek gray gateway to the Atlantic, may be among the more difficult ever attempted.
Since July, a small army of Tom Sawyers has gathered daily on a floating barge beneath the Staten Island base of the bridge — at 4,260 feet, still the longest center span in the United States — to attempt the repainting of its towers. The 35-member crew has been working day and night to remove toxic lead paint, perform a checkup on the bridge’s steel interior and generally ensure that Staten Islanders enjoy a safe passage for many decades to come.
Clean, fresh exterior paint is considered a critical element of a bridge’s support structure, since it protects the interior steel structure from corrosion. The Verrazano is constantly exposed to brutal winds, saltwater spray and a particularly vexing weather pattern by dint of its position at the mouth of Upper New York Bay. (Not to mention all those motorists’ complaints about the high tolls.)
Parts of the bridge are still sporting the original paint from 1964, when the span was first opened to traffic. Other parts were repainted in the 1980s, but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the bridge, decided that a full rehab was necessary.
About 185,000 square feet of the towers, on both interior and exterior surfaces, will be getting new coats. To perform the task, which is expected to take two years, workers gather on a barge by the supporting base of the bridge’s 693-foot-tall towers. A hive-like webbing of tarp was created to cover the lower portion of the towers while the old lead-based paint is blasted away, ensuring that chips and particles don’t go flying into the water. (The lead bits can be hazardous when absorbed into the surrounding environment.)
Three coats of lead-free paint, specifically designed for use on bridges, will be applied, but not before the workers inspect and repair any corroded parts of the bridge’s steel interior.
The transportation authority, which controls seven bridges in the city, is frequently repainting its spans as part of regular maintenance schedules. The Throgs Neck Bridge between Queens and the Bronx is at the tail end of a spruce-up, and the Harlem River span of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, formerly the Triborough, was fully repainted in 2008.
As for the Verrazano-Narrows job, it’s not actually up for grabs. Last year, the transportation authority hired an Ohio-based contractor named Corcon, which has performed similar work on the Brooklyn Bridge and Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Bridge. So even if you have 12,000 gallons of paint to spare, you’ll have to look elsewhere to use it. May we suggest checking Craigslist?
Our transit reporter, Michael M. Grynbaum, advises you on the latest chatter from the city’s roads and rails. Check back every Monday. Got a tip? He can be reached atOffTheRails@nytimes.com.