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This 1999 photo shows the Manhattan portal and ventilation tower of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel (I-478). (Photo by Andy Field.)

MOSES WRESTS CONTROL OF THE BATTERY TUNNEL AND PLANS A BRIDGE: Proposals for a crossing between the Battery Park in lower Manhattan and the Red Hook section of Brooklyn had been around since 1929. At that time, city planners noted that the Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges were together carrying 150,000 vehicles per day, and projected that this number would double in the years ahead.

Originally envisioned as a three-tube, six-lane tunnel, the crossing was to connect two pieces of Robert Moses' rapidly expanding arterial network: the West Side Highway in Manhattan, and the "Circumferential bypass" (later known as the Gowanus Expressway and the Belt Parkway) in Brooklyn. The proposed tunnel, which also had the support of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, was approved by the New York City Board of Estimate in November 1930. However, its construction was delayed by the deepening economic depression. After spending $105 million on the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and other high-priority projects, the city government was running low on funds. The federal Public Works Administration (PWA) refused to provide additional funds to the city.

In a desperate search for funds, LaGuardia discovered the Moses' Triborough Bridge Authority was generating $30 million in surplus revenues. Such a surplus would fund the proposed Battery crossing, but this would come at a price. LaGuardia would have to relinquish control of the New York City Tunnel Authority to Moses.

With Moses now in control of the Battery crossing, he changed the original plan from a six-lane tunnel crossing to a six-lane bridge crossing. This change reflected the values of the bankers that would finance such a project: that a bridge would be built for less money, cost slightly less to operate, and carry more traffic. Moreover, this change reflected his own personal philosophy: his eagerness to build impressive monuments for all to see. According to an aide, Moses regarded a tunnel as "but a hole in the ground."

DESCRIPTION OF THE NEVER-BUILT BRIDGE: Moses hired his favorite designer - Othmar Ammann - for the proposed Brooklyn-Battery Bridge. The design of Moses' proposed crossing - a twin suspension bridge linked together by a central anchorage near Governor's Island - was similar to that of the twin suspension span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge:

  • The upper half of the bridge was to have a main suspension span measuring roughly 2,000 feet long and towers reaching roughly 375 feet high. The taller towers of the Manhattan span resembled those of Ammann's Delaware Memorial Bridge.

  • The central "anchorage" of the bridge was not a solid concrete block (as on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge), but was a small arch bridge measuring about 250 feet long. It was to be located just beyond the eastern shoreline of Governor's Island.

  • The lower half of the bridge was to have a main suspension span measuring roughly 1,500 feet long and towers reaching roughly 300 feet high. The shorter towers of the Brooklyn span resembled those of Ammann's Throgs Neck Bridge.

  • The Manhattan approach was to be at Battery Park, where a series of giant piers was to carry a low-level causeway to the West Side Highway. The Brooklyn approach was to be at Hamilton Avenue, at the site of the current Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel toll plaza, and was to connect to the Gowanus Parkway (which eventually became the Gowanus Expressway).

THE BATTLE OF THE BRIDGE: Unlike many of Moses' previous projects, the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge proposal fomented opposition from New York City's business and political establishments, as well as from the influential Regional Plan Association (RPA). Many in the city's "Good Government" movement - those who propelled Moses to power in the 1920's - felt that they had been betrayed. They feared not only losses in property values, but also the values that made city life valuable. Ole Singstad, noted tunnel engineer and proponent of a Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, estimated that the planned Manhattan approach would cost New York City as much as $29 million in lost real estate taxes over the next 20 years.

From Robert A. Caro's
The Power Broker:

Build the bridge that Robert Moses wanted to build and "a prospect unexcelled by any city in the world," would become little more than an extension of the mean streets of Lower Manhattan. The (Battery) park had once been an escape from those streets - the only escape; now there would be no escape from them at all. Only someone thoroughly familiar with Lower Manhattan could appreciate fully what would be done to the area - and to the half million people who spent their days in it - by the bridge that Robert Moses wanted to build. But New York's reformer-aristocrats possessed that familiarity, and they determined to stop him from building it.

Even the New York City Planning Commission, which had steadfastly recommended a tunnel for the site, voted 4-2 to approve the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge. While the majority had "valid objections" to the bridge, the Commission stated that it was "not at this time called upon to choose between a tunnel and a bridge." A Brooklyn-Battery crossing was needed, and if a bridge were the type of crossing were available, it would have to be a bridge.

In the end, it took the intervention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to stop the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge project from moving forward. In the April 5, 1939 edition of her newspaper column "My Day," First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt provided this insight:

I have a plea from a man who is deeply interested in Manhattan Island, particularly in the beauty of the approach from the ocean at Battery Park. He tells me that a New York official, who is without doubt always efficient, is proposing a bridge one hundred feet high at the rive, which will go across to the Whitehall Building over Battery Park. This, he says, will mean a screen of elevated roadways, pillars, etc., at that particular point. I haven't a question that this will be done in the name of progress, and something undoubtedly needs to be done. But isn't there room for some consideration of the preservation of the few beautiful spots that still remain to us on an overcrowded island?

The Brooklyn-Battery Bridge proposal was officially killed on July 17, 1939, when the Secretary of War under the Roosevelt Administration, Harry Woodring, said that the proposed crossing would be seaward of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. According to the War Department, the proposed bridge would have not only been vulnerable to attack in the event of war, but also blocked access to the Navy Yard. However, it could be argued that this was a ludicrous objection, since the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges were downstream of the Navy Yard. In the end, perhaps the Battery crossing decision stemmed from the long-stemming grudge between Moses and Roosevelt.

These 2007 photos show a scale model of the proposed Brooklyn-Battery Bridge. The scale model was built in 1939.

TOP: This photo shows the northernmost tower of the bridge. Note the resemblance to the tall towers of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

BOTTOM: This photo shows the remaining three towers and the central anchorage of the bridge. Note the resemblance to the short, squat towers of the Throgs Neck Bridge. 

(Photos from the Museum of the City of New York exhibit "Robert Moses and the Modern City: Remaking the Metropolis.")

CONSTRUCTION OF THE TUNNEL: Under the direction of Ole Singstad of the New York City Tunnel Authority, construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel commenced in October 1940. Work on the tunnel, originally scheduled for completion in October 1943, was halted due to World War II-induced steel and iron shortages. When construction resumed in late 1945, it was Moses and the newly combined Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority that would be charged with finishing the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

More than one million pounds of dynamite were used to bore through rock and earth beneath New York Harbor. About 13,900 tons of steel, 205,000 cubic yards of concrete, 1,871 miles of electrical wire, 883,391 bolts, and 799,000 wall and ceiling tiles went into the structure. In addition, about 93,600 tons of cast iron were used to line the tunnel. Ventilation was to be provided by 53 fans, operated by 104 motors that release 6,152,000 cubic feet of fresh air into the tunnel. It takes approximately 90 minutes to completely change the air in the tunnel.

Edward Faughnan, one of the "sandhogs" who worked on the tunnel, recalled his experiences in the following 1990
Newsday excerpt:

"It was a wonderful experience. It made a better man out of me. I met a lot of wonderful men who helped me mold my life. They were real men, hard-working men, mostly immigrants, men from the South. John Wayne made movies about a lot of people, but I don't think he could ever have made one about sandhogs. They are the finest men on the face of the earth. I'm still in touch with a lot of them."

The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel opened on May 25, 1950 at a cost of $90 million. The 9,117-foot-long tunnel, which remains today the longest continuous underwater vehicular tunnel in the world, was a success from the very beginning, carrying approximately 41,000 vehicles per day during its first full year of operation in 1951. By 1965, revenues from the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens-Midtown tunnels, projects both originally opposed by Moses, generated nearly one-third of the revenue at the TBTA.

At the Manhattan approach, Moses constructed the Battery Parking Garage, which continues to be operated to this day by MTA Bridges and Tunnels, the successor to the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.

THE BROOKLYN-BATTERY TUNNEL TODAY: According to the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel carries approximately 60,000 vehicles per day (AADT) between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) logs show that the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel has an unmarked designation: Interstate 478. The I-478 designation was to be given to the Westway project, a 4.2-mile superhighway planned along the route of the current West Side Highway (NY 9A). When the project was canceled in 1985, the I-478 designation was truncated to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and its approaches, making I-478 a spur from I-278.

Doug Currey, deputy regional director and chief engineer at the NYSDOT, confirmed the I-478 designation as follows:

The removal of Westway in 1985 from the Interstate system had shortened the length of I-478. The short roadway and tunnel segment between West Street in Manhattan and the Gowanus Expressway (I-278) in Brooklyn is still designated as I-478. This Interstate designation is presently shown on the official New York State tourism map and the NYSDOT Official Description of Highway Touring Routes in New York State.

To avoid motorist confusion caused by a brief appearance of a new route number, we use signs indicating "TO I-278" for tunnel-bound traffic at West Street.

Beginning in the late 1990's, after nearly a half-century of service, the tunnel received the first major rehabilitation in its history. The rehabilitation is comprised of the following projects:

  • During 1999 and 2000, MTA Bridges and Tunnels conducted a $100 million effort to install a new ceiling and new lighting in the tunnel.

  • In 2001, the Battery Parking Garage received a $44 million makeover. The garage, which was completed when the tunnel opened in 1950, is still owned and operated by MTA Bridges and Tunnels.

  • In 2002, MTA Bridges and Tunnels completed a $55 million project to rehabilitate the tunnel superstructure, roadway and drainage system. The project addressed the deterioration of the roadway slab in both tubes of the tunnel. Tunnel leak repairs and wall tile replacement was also performed. That year, the agency also completed a $10 million rehabilitation of the vent buildings.

  • The final part of the project, which will be completed in 2003, involves a $35 million installation of new pumps, exhaust fans, fire standpipe and waterline valves, variable message signs, and traffic control and signal systems.

NEW HOV RESTRICTIONS: For more than one month after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was closed to all traffic except emergency vehicles. When the tunnel reopened, MTA Bridges and Tunnels and the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) imposed new HOV restrictions, as part of larger-scale efforts to reduce congestion in Manhattan below 63rd Street.

For nearly six months thereafter, inbound traffic was restricted to buses during rush hours with the closure of the West Side Highway (NY 9A) through Lower Manhattan. The Manhattan-bound HOV restriction, which has since revised to two or more occupants per vehicle, currently applies from 6:00 AM to 10:00 AM weekdays.

This 1998 photo shows the Manhattan terminus of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel (I-478). The Battery Parking Garage, as shown in the background, was constructed by Robert Moses in conjunction with the tunnel. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

Construction started:
Opened to traffic:
Length between portals:
Number of tubes:
Number of traffic lanes:
Operating headroom of tubes:
Structural steel used:
Cast iron tunnel lining:
Concrete used in structural and tunnel lining:
Concrete used in excavation:
Supply and exhaust fans:
Fresh air per minute:
Cost of original structure:

October 28, 1940
May 25, 1950
9,117 feet
2 tubes
4 lanes
11 feet, 9 inches
13,900 tons
93,600 tons
205,000 cubic yards
813,000 cubic yards
53 fans
4,150,000 cubic feet
$90,568,000

I-478 shields should be installed along the approaches and on all destination signs leading to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

SOURCES: "Battery Tube Loan Approved by RFC," The New York Times (6/30/1940); "More Moses Loops Form," The New York Times (6/29/1941); The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, Vintage Books-Random House (1974); "Manhattan Closeup: Celebrating Tunnel's Deep, Dark Past" by Merle English, Newsday (5/25/1990); "Major Repair Planned for Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel" by Emily Sachar, Newsday (10/15/1993); Toll Facilities in the United States, Federal Highway Administration (February 1997); "A Guide to Civil Engineering Projects in and Around New York City," American Society of Civil Engineers (1997); "Missing Link: The Bridge That Wasn't" by Jay Maeder, New York Daily News (6/04/1998); "Tunneling Through," MTA Bridges and Tunnels Archives (October 1998); Official Description of Highway Touring Routes in New York State, New York State Department of Transportation (1999); MTA Bridges and Tunnels Facilities, MTA Bridges and Tunnels (2000); New York City Department of Transportation; New York Metropolitan Transportation Council; Hank Eisenstein; Charles Erickson; Ralph Herman; Robert T. Hintersteiner; Jeff Saltzman; Kevin Walsh; Rush Wickes.

  • Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and I-478 shields by Ralph Herman.
  • Lightposts by Jeff Saltzman.
  • HOV sign by C.C. Slater.

BROOKLYN-BATTERY TUNNEL LINKS:

BROOKLYN-BATTERY TUNNEL CURRENT CONDITIONS:

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