The bridge was designed by the master bridge-builder Othmar Ammann and the architect Cass Gilbert. It was built by the Port of New York Authority and opened on November 15, 1931. The primary purpose of the bridge was to allow vehicle traffic from Staten Island to reach Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel.
Ammann, the master bridge builder and chief architect of the Port Authority, choose the steel arch design after rejecting a cantilever and suspension design as expensive and impractical for the site.
The eventual design of the bridge called for a graceful parabolic arch that soars 226 feet above the Kill Van Kull and supports a road bed for 1675 feet without intermediary piers. The total length of the bridge is 8640 feet with a mid-span clearance above the water of 150 feet.
The design of the steel arch is based on 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, leaving the steel trusses exposed.
Construction of the bridge began in 1928. The eventual cost of construction was 13 million dollars. When it opened it 1931, it was the longest steel arch bridge in the world, eclipsing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which had opened the same year, by two feet.
The supported roadway carries two lanes of traffic in each direction. A pedestrian walkway, cantilevered from the roadway, currently provides the only access by foot to Staten Island.
As of 2003, the bridge carried approximately 20,000 vehicles per day. It required a toll in the Staten Island direction of six dollars for automobiles.