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Long-dormant bridge reawakens to traffic

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There was little fanfare Friday morning when the Honeywell Street Bridge reopened after a 24-year hiatus, just a crew of orange-vested men who cleared away the barricades on a snow-sprinkled roadway in dire need of a plow.

With no ribbons to cut and no speeches to deliver, no one seemed to mind when the scheduled 10 a.m. launch was delayed an hour so the thin blanket of snow that settled across the span in an overnight dusting could be shoveled away.

It was a mellow rebirth for a long-lost crossing between Long Island City and Sunnyside, a bridge that's been closed so many years it had faded into the deep recesses of drivers' memories.

"This thing's been dormant for so long that it's almost like a bonus for the community to have it," said Tom Cocola, a spokesman for the city Department of Transportation, which announced the bridge's return to life in a Jan. 13 press release.

Honeywell is among a small handful of bridges that cross the width of the Sunnyside Yards, the cavernous chasm of train tracks and rail yards that has cut a deep line between two neighborhoods since the first decade of the 20th Century.

Closed to traffic in 1979 after dismally failing its safety inspection, Honeywell spent the past two decades condemned to endure as a phantom link between Northern Boulevard and Skillman Avenue - the bridge you could see but never touch.

The four-lane span that now slopes over Sunnyside Yards in a gentle arc is not the same withering structure that shut down 24 years ago. Honeywell Street Bridge was completely reconstructed over the past year as part of a $72 million project that also rehabilitated the Queens Boulevard Bridge, its sister to the west.

"The only thing that was left remaining was the foundation," said Larry Gillman, the project manager with Perini Corp. who oversaw both reconstructions. "It's a new bridge on top of the existing foundation."

Although no one is likely to miss the decaying steel and rotten concrete, some aficionados of New York City history are mourning the loss of its aged charm. Honeywell had passed the better part of a century virtually untouched by renovations after its construction in 1909.

"It's boring. I wish they could have kept the old-fashioned feel of the older bridges," said Kevin Walsh, a history enthusiast who runs the website www.forgotten-ny.com and freelances in the TimesLedger's production department. "It had the cobblestones, it had the old-fashioned lampposts."

Even the bridge's name hearkens back to a day when Queens' streets were named, not numbered. Although Honeywell Street is now called 35th Street south of Skillman Avenue, the few feet of road between Northern Boulevard and the northern edge of the bridge still bear the original name.

But if you haven't heard of Honeywell, don't be alarmed. You may well be in the majority.

City Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Woodside), a Woodside native who represents the communities on both sides of the bridge, was a mere lad of 6 or 7 when Honeywell disappeared behind a barricade. Needless to say, it doesn't figure prominently in his memory.

Even those who championed the bridge back in the day are remarkably bereft of words when the conversation shifts to Honeywell.

City officials credit former Borough President Claire Shulman with saving the bridge from demolition, but so many years have passed even she doesn't remember what exactly happened.

"I wanted the bridge repaired because it was in terrible shape, but I don't remember the details any longer," Shulman said when reached by telephone at home. "1979? Do you know how many projects I've done since then?"

Perhaps she's just modest. To hear Cocola tell the story, Shulman rescued the bridge from near-certain death.

"The city wanted to basically condemn it and destroy it, and Claire Shulman wanted it reopened," Cocola said.

Although she isn't telling war stories, Shulman won that battle.

Some people obviously have been waiting. Joseph Conley, the chairman of Community Board 2, said the bridge's return has been long overdue.

"This was an integral part of our community and that's why people were always wondering what was taking so long to get it back open again," he said.

But drivers have gotten so used to not using Honeywell that the only lingering question is when they will finally get back in the habit.

Although cars and even a few pedestrians have already begun trickling across the bridge's 1,600-feet span, they are a lonely bunch.

Tom Bielecki, 26, of Middle Village braved the cold to walk across the Honeywell Bridge Tuesday morning to reach his office on Thomson Avenue after dropping his car off at a Ford dealership on Northern Boulevard.

"I like bridges - especially ones that get me to work," he said.

Nazmul Ansari, 38, from Astoria never knew the bridge was closed or that it ever existed in the first place. He stumbled across Honeywell for the first time Tuesday morning while winding his way to a job interview.

He didn't have much company.

"There's nobody using this," Ansari said through his rolled-down window while idling at a traffic light. "It's kind of deserted."

Not for long, Cocola said.

"I don't want to sound like Kevin Costner, but if you build it, people will come."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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