This 1999 photo shows the Queens portal of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel (I-495). The tunnel stretches from the Kips Bay neighborhood on the East Side of Manhattan to Long Island City, Queens. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)
"The Queens-Midtown Tunnel is designed to take its place in the New York of tomorrow. To get a clear picture of this miracle of engineering skill it is perhaps necessary to compare it with its older sister to the west, the Holland Tunnel connecting Manhattan with New Jersey. This early tunnel taught engineers many lessons that were put to good use in the new construction. It took seven years to complete the Holland Tunnel, and only four years to complete the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. Time has been saved, and money has been saved. New York can be proud of her new tunnel, and proud, too, of the ingenuity, skill and vision that made it possible." - Queens-Midtown Tunnel dedication program (1940)
INSPIRED BY THE HOLLAND TUNNEL: Soon after the Holland Tunnel, the first vehicular tunnel designed to handle modern automotive traffic, opened in 1927, support grew for the construction of a vehicular tunnel to relieve congestion on the East River bridges. In 1929, the New York City Board of Estimate appropriated $2.0 million to the Board of Transportation for the design and construction of an East River vehicular tunnel. The Army Corps of Engineers approved the tunnel plan at the end of 1930, but the Great Depression precluded any further spending by the city.
THE POWER STRUGGLE: From Robert A. Caro's The Power Broker:
No sooner had Moses learned that Mayor LaGuardia was considering establishing an authority to build a $58,000,000 Queens-Midtown Tunnel that he began hinting, none too subtly, that he would like to be on it, if not in charge of it.
In 1936, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia created the New York City Tunnel Authority to construct a twin-tube tunnel that had been proposed six years earlier between the East Side of Manhattan and Long Island City, Queens. The East River Tunnel, along with the Hudson River (Lincoln) Tunnel then under construction, was to form a continuous route from Long Island to New Jersey.
Citing the deep divisions between New York City Arterial Coordinator Robert Moses and President Franklin D. Roosevelt (who approved the $58 million Public Works Administration loan for the tunnel), LaGuardia specifically left Moses out of the Tunnel Authority by stating in legislation that "an unsalaried state official shall not be eligible" for appointment. LaGuardia sought engineers outside of Moses' Triborough Bridge Authority, most notably famed tunnel engineer Ole Singstad, to construct the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. Meanwhile, Moses tried to influence upstate politicians to kill the Authority, but was unsuccessful when Governor Herbert Lehman sided with LaGuardia.
In reality, Moses also recognized the need for a midtown Manhattan crossing. Instead of a tunnel, he argued that a bridge be constructed at East 37th Street. However, this proposal was never defended with the same vigor as previous Moses proposals, since it would have meant condemnation of blocks of office and apartment buildings, and brought commensurately high condemnation costs and removal of properties from the tax rolls.
In The Power Broker, Caro argued that source of the difference of opinion stemmed not from the proposal itself, but over who should control the proposal. From Ole Singstad, Chief Engineer of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel:
Why did Moses try to wreck (the Tunnel Authority)? Because he couldn't take it over, that's why. He couldn't take it over so he wanted to wreck the whole damned project.
The newly completed Queens-Midtown Tunnel is shown in this 1941 photo. (Photo by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority; supplied by Charles Erickson.)
THE TUNNELING PROCESS: Before construction began, engineers doing preliminary work drilled out core samples of the earth beneath the East River. Excavations carried out for prior tunneling efforts in the area, the Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels at East 33rd Street and the IND subway tunnels at 53rd Street, revealed wide variations in the geology of the East River and its shorelines. Where there was solid bedrock, tunnel workers ("sandhogs") blasted through with dynamite. In other areas, massive circular cutting shields, similar to those used on the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, were hydraulically powered through the ground beneath the river. As these shields were moved, the tubes behind them were lined with rings of cast iron and welded steel.
Nevertheless, the geological variations encountered in the project area made for a more difficult, costly tunneling process than would have been encountered through an all-silt or all-rock environment. During a 24-hour period, one advance of the tunneling shield, or "shove," would measure only 2 feet, 8 inches for the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. In contrast, a "shove" during a 24-hour period measured as much as 47½ feet for the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, which were constructed through the more hospitable silt of the Hudson River.
Singstad refined some of the techniques used in his earlier tunnels. To accommodate the wider cars of the 1930's and 1940's, he designed each tube in the Queens-Midtown Tunnel to be one and one-half feet wider than a similar tube in the Holland Tunnel. Ventilation buildings were constructed on both the Manhattan and Queens shores to change the air of the tunnel. A complete air change in the tunnel takes approximately one hour.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke ground for the tunnel on October 2, 1936. However, the work for driving the two tubes of the tunnel, which was contracted to the Walsh Construction Company, did not begin until July 9, 1937.
CONNECTING THE TUNNEL WITH THE SHORELINE: The maximum gradient for the tunnel is four percent for descending sections, and 3½ percent ascending sections. At either end are the Queens toll plaza and the Manhattan approaches.
To the east, the Queens toll plaza is located in Long Island City at the western terminus of the Long Island Expressway, the original section of which opened as a one-mile-long elevated "Midtown Highway." The expressway extends the line of the tunnel east into Queens. In addition, entrance and exit points are also found at Borden Avenue and 21st Street.
To the west, the Manhattan approaches were designed to handle both tunnel traffic and city cross-traffic. However, the western approaches do not continue the straight line of the tunnel. Because the Manhattan side of the tunnel rises as a bluff overlooking the East River, it was not feasible to extend the line from the tunnel to Midtown streets on a short, direct course without either exceeding acceptable gradients or condemning significant rights-of-way. To reach the Manhattan approaches, the tunnel alignment shifts south for six blocks before turning west, emerging at Second Avenue between East 36th Street and East 37th Street.
MORE POLITICS BEHIND THE SCENES: In 1938, two years after President Roosevelt broke ground on the new tunnel, Mayor LaGuardia had run out of money. Eager to construct new crossings such as the Queens-Midtown and Brooklyn-Battery tunnels, and new arteries such as the Belt Parkway, the city had already spent $105 million. The city needed an additional $5 million to complete these projects, but was unable to obtain Public Works Administration funds from Washington. Moses' Triborough Bridge Authority had $30 million in surpluses from toll revenues. Trapped between his dreams for the city and his inability to pay for them, LaGuardia had no choice but to merge his New York City Tunnel Authority with the Triborough Bridge Authority.
The merger did not take place immediately. After years of financial difficulties and political staging, the merger of the two authorities became effective in 1946, six years after the completion of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel.
This 2002 photo shows the rehabilitated Queens-Midtown Tunnel (I-495) heading west into midtown Manhattan. The Queens-Midtown Tunnel nearing the end of a six-year, $132 million rehabilitation project, the first major overhaul in the history of the tunnel. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
SETTING NEW STANDARDS IN SPEED AND SAFETY: On November 8, 1939, months ahead of schedule, "sandhogs" digging from the Manhattan and Queens shorelines holed through successfully. It took 28 months at a rate of 140 feet per month to accomplish driving the tunnel to the point of holing through. Remarkably, there were no deaths from "the bends," an affliction caused by the compressed air of the tunnel. The Queens-Midtown Tunnel was only the second major tunnel project to claim such a tunnel (the first was the Lincoln Tunnel).
The twin-tube tunnel was completed on November 15, 1940. When it opened, it was the largest non-Federal project of its time. President Roosevelt, who broke ground on the tunnel four years earlier, was the first person to drive through the new tunnel.
ROBERT MOSES AND THE TUNNEL: The Queens-Midtown Tunnel enjoyed modest success early on, carrying approximately 12,000 vehicles per day during its first full year of operation in 1941. When Moses finally took over the New York City Tunnel Authority in 1946, he argued for improved access to the tunnel. New expressway proposals, such as the Queens-Midtown (later Long Island) Expressway and the unbuilt Mid-Manhattan Expressway, were championed in postwar arterial development plans. By 1965, the Queens-Midtown and Brooklyn-Battery tunnels provided nearly one-third of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority's total revenue.
In the mid-1960's, Moses proposed construction of a $120 million third tube for the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. The third tube was part of a master arterial plan to revive the Mid-Manhattan Expressway, as well as to provide access from Manhattan to Kennedy Airport via the Ridgewood-Maspeth (later Queens Interboro) Expressway. When completed, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel was to allow for flexibility in handling peak traffic. (During rush hours, four lanes were to be provided in each direction, and in off-peak hours, three lanes were to be provided in each direction by converting the center tube into a two-way operation.) Combined with the new expressways, the total cost of the project was projected at $475 million. However, given the increasing sentiment against new highways, Moses' proposal was defeated.
This 1963 map from Future Arterial Program for New York City shows the proposed third tube of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, with connections to the Long Island Expressway and the unbuilt Mid-Manhattan Expressway. (Map by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.)
THE QUEENS-MIDTOWN TUNNEL TODAY: The Queens-Midtown Tunnel serves as the westbound terminus of the 71-mile-long Long Island Expressway. The official FHWA route log shows the tunnel as part of NY 495, but all destination signs and reference markers designate the tunnel as Interstate 495. On the Manhattan side, the north-south approaches collect and empty traffic efficiently onto the east-west streets. According to the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), the tunnel currently carries approximately 80,000 vehicles per day (AADT).
Relative to other East River crossings, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel does not leave much of an imprint on its surroundings. From Sandy Smith, frequent contributor to the misc.transport.road newsgroup:
The way the approaches of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel are knitted into the fabric of Murray Hill still impresses me: they are about as unobtrusive as they could possibly be. This is an engineering marvel that's all the more impressive because you really don't see it unless you're looking for it.
Freelance writer Charles Erickson described the tunnel portals in the following Newsday excerpt:
From the Manhattan location, the only clues about the tunnel's existence are the tops of its portals, which look more like a small park. Trees, fencing and signs that remind owners to clean up after their dogs surround them. At Hunters Point (Queens), the tunnel calls little attention to itself, though on this side it shares space with warehouses, storage lots and a few apartment blocks.
REBUILDING THE TUNNEL: In 1998, MTA Bridges and Tunnels began a three-year, $132 million rehabilitation of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, the first such project in the history of the tunnel. During the first stage of the project, workers constructed a new roof for the tunnel. The roof of each tunnel, which is comprised of 930 concrete slabs (each slab 20 feet long and weighing eight tons), was to be suspended from steel brackets, and secured by giant steel anchors jammed deep into the concrete shell of the tunnel. However, concerns about displacement of the steel anchors caused by vibrations from tunnel led engineers to devise another solution. The new plan called for mounting the brackets to steel rods, and gluing them into the shell (using a glue-quartz adhesive compound) to make them one with the concrete. This stage of the project, which included replacement of wall and ceiling tiles, a new fire protection system, new lights and other structural work, was completed in 2001.
In 2004, work began on a four-year project to replace the tunnel's 23 original carbon steel exhaust fans with new stainless steel fans measuring 20 feet high and 11 feet long and wide. The $19 million project, which included the replacement of electrical, mechanical, and communications systems, was completed in May 2008. Nearly all of the work was carried out in the overnight hours.
TEMPORARY HOV RESTRICTIONS REMOVED: As part of larger-scale efforts to reduce congestion in Manhattan below 63rd Street after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, MTA Bridges and Tunnels and the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) imposed new HOV restrictions on the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. The Manhattan-bound HOV restriction, which applied from 6:00 AM to 10:00 AM weekdays, was removed on April 22, 2002.
This 2002 photo shows the eastbound Queens-Midtown Tunnel (I-495) approaching the Long Island City toll plaza. I-495 continues east as the Long Island Expressway. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
Construction started: Opened to traffic: Length between portals (south tube): Length between portals (north tube): Number of tubes: Number of traffic lanes: Operating headroom of tubes: External diameter of tunnel: Maximum depth, mean high water to roadway: 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:
SOURCES: "East River Tunnel Approved by Army," The New York Times (12/31/1930); "Queens-Midtown Tunnel," New York City Tunnel Authority (1940); Future Arterial Program for New York City, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1963); "Third Tube for Midtown Tunnel Advanced by Plan for New Study" by Joseph C. Ingraham, The New York Times (1/01/1965); "Queens-Midtown Tunnel: Third Tube," Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1965); Arterial Progress 1959-1965, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1965); The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, Vintage Books-Random House (1974); "A Guide to Civil Engineering Projects in and Around New York City," American Society of Civil Engineers (1997); "A Long Overhaul" by Sylvia Adcock, Newsday (1/03/1998); "Tunneling Through," MTA Bridges and Tunnels Archives (October 1998); "The Influence of Geology on the Construction of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, New York" by J.G. Tam (1998); "60 Years of Tunnel Vision" by Charles Erickson, Newsday (11/14/2000); MTA Bridges and Tunnels Facilities, MTA Bridges and Tunnels (2000); "Sticky Situation" by Brett Nelson, Forbes (10/29/2001); "Tunnel To Undergo Air System Overhaul" by Noah C. Zuss, The Queens Tribune (5/22/2008); New York City Department of Transportation; New York Metropolitan Transportation Council; Hank Eisenstein; Ralph Herman; Robert T. Hintersteiner; Jeff Saltzman; Sandy Smith; Kevin Walsh.
Queens-Midtown Tunnel and I-495 shields by Ralph Herman. Lightposts by Jeff Saltzman. HOV sign by C.C. Slater.