Construction of the bridge began on March 17, 1952, at a cost of $6.5 million. It opened on May 18, 1955, as the Welfare Island Bridge. The name was changed to the Roosevelt Island Bridge in 1973.
When the bridge is open it provides ships with 100 feet (30 m) of vertical clearance. It is 40 feet (12 m) wide, and its total length, including approaches, is 2,877 feet (877 m). The main span is 418 feet (127 m).
Before the bridge was constructed, the only way vehicles could access Roosevelt Island was via an elevator on the Queensboro Bridge.
The Roosevelt Island Bridge provides direct access to the Motorgate Parking Garage, which was designed to minimize vehicular traffic on the island. The garage was completed in 1974 and later expanded in 1990.
In 2001, the New York City Department of Transportation considered converting the Roosevelt Island Bridge into a fixed bridge to reduce the cost of its maintenance. The bridge is rarely opened, because most vessels passing by Roosevelt Island use the West Channel of the East River. Most of the bridge openings occur in September during the General Assembly at the United Nations when the West Channel is closed for security reasons.