This 1963 map from Future Arterial Program for New York City shows the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, with connections to the Williamsburg Bridge (I-78) and the Manhattan Bridge (I-478) to the east, and the Holland Tunnel and the West Side Highway (NY 9A) to the west. (Map by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.)

EARLY PLANS THROUGH LOWER MANHATTAN: The first proposal for a controlled-access highway across lower Manhattan appeared in the 1929 Regional Plan Association report, "Plan of New York and Its Environs." As an integral part of the tri-state network of expressways and parkways, the Lower Manhattan Expressway was to connect the Holland Tunnel with Brooklyn.

In 1941, the Lower Manhattan Expressway was officially approved in city plans as follows:

Lower Manhattan Crosstown Highway: This is a much-needed crosstown connection between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, and the Holland Tunnel, serving local cross-Manhattan traffic as well as traffic from the bridges and the tunnel. This connection would not only provide additional needed capacity for crosstown traffic, but would also help relieve congestion on north-south streets by minimizing delays at heavily traveled crosstown streets, such as Canal Street. Several agencies have made studies of this improvement, and have recommended various routes and types of construction. While the Commission is definitely in accord with the principle of providing an express crosstown highway in the area indicated, it does not now recommend any particular route or type of construction.

Robert Moses, the arterial coordinator for New York City, recommended that construction of the road be expedited not only to relieve congestion, but also to serve defense functions.

Two years later, the City Planning Department floated six different proposals for the Lower Manhattan Expressway. The recommended alternative called for the construction of a six-lane, double-decked, controlled-access highway between the West Side Highway and the Manhattan Bridge. The proposed expressway, which was to be open to passenger cars, trucks and buses, was to follow a route just south of Canal Street, along the north side of Beach and White Streets. Near its western terminus, the expressway would have had connections to the nearby Holland Tunnel and a proposed parking garage.

The cost of the proposal, including construction and right-of-way acquisition, was estimated at $23.0 million. However, city officials recommended postponing the Lower Manhattan Expressway project until the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, FDR (East River) Drive and Harlem River Drive projects were completed.

THE PROPOSED SKYWAY: In 1946, New York City arterial coordinator Robert Moses resurrected the Lower Manhattan Expressway (later nicknamed "Lomex"), this time proposing a direct route between the Holland Tunnel, Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan Bridge. The proposal was the subject of a 1949 study commissioned by Manhattan Borough President Hugo E. Rogers (an office which according to Robert A. Caro was "a particularly lucrative source of contracts for the Tammany Hall political machine). It was also the subject of the 1955 Joint Study of Arterial Facilities conducted by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and the Port of New York Authority.

The following excerpt is from the
Joint Study:

The proposed expressway in the vicinity of Canal Street would be an elevated through-route with direct connections to the West Side Highway, the Holland Tunnel, and the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges. The removal of through passenger and commercial traffic from the local streets would in itself provide needed relief for local and short trip movements. In addition, surface improvements would be provided as a part of the expressway program with the result that additional capacity would be available for local traffic.

The expressway would begin at the West Side Highway as a six-lane elevated roadway. It would follow Canal Street about two blocks, then curve north and cross over the Holland Tunnel entrance plaza.

East of the Holland Tunnel, the widened right-of-way would follow the north side of Watts Street, continuing eastward as an elevated eight-lane route along the north side of Broome Street. Near Centre Street, the outer lanes of the highway would descend and pass under Elizabeth Street, continuing eastward in an open-walled cut to the Williamsburg Bridge Plaza. All streets except Mulberry and Mott would be carried across bridges over the depressed highway. At Suffolk Street the alignment would meet Delancey Street.

Near Elizabeth Street, there would be included an elevated spur to the Manhattan Bridge. This spur would cross the Third Avenue Elevated Rapid Transit structure (which was removed later in 1955) and parallel it along the Bowery, widened on the east side between Delancey Street and Canal Street. It would then turn southeastward to connect directly with both decks of the Manhattan Bridge.

The estimated cost of the Lower Manhattan Expressway would be about $72,000,000, including about $28,000,000 for real estate.


The elevated expressway, which was expected to handle 120,000 vehicles per day (AADT), was to have been constructed within a 250-to-350 foot-wide right-of-way, with a clearance of 50 to 60 feet between the edge of the expressway and the nearest buildings. Supports for the 1.5-mile-long viaduct were to be widely spaced, with the roadways carried cantilever arms. The underside of the structure was to allow surface streets to pass under, and accommodate a parking mall with a 48-foot-wide roadway and 12-foot-wide sidewalks on either side. The parking mall was to accommodate 1400 cars.

Interchanges were to have been built at the following locations:

BEGIN: Holland Tunnel
EXIT 1: West Side Highway (NY 9A)
EXIT 2: Sixth Avenue / Avenue of the Americas
EXIT 3: Spur to Manhattan Bridge and Canal Street
EXIT 4: Delancey Street / Essex Street / Avenue A
END: Williamsburg Bridge

This artist's conception from the 1950's shows the elevated Lower Manhattan Expressway looking east. In the foreground is the interchange with the Holland Tunnel, with the elevated West Side Highway running along the bottom of the photo. In the distance are connections with the Williamsburg Bridge (top center) and the Manhattan Bridge (top right). (Figure by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.)

PART OF THE INTERSTATE SYSTEM: Moses found support in the Federal government for his Lower Manhattan Expressway. In its 1955 "Yellow Book," the Federal Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) included the expressway linking the Holland Tunnel, Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan Bridge.

The Lower Manhattan Expressway received a further boost from the Tri-State Transportation Commission. In its 1966 report, Transportation 1985: A Regional Plan, the Commission states the following:

The need for a limited-access crossing of lower Manhattan is one of long standing. The new bypass routes, while of great significance, are far removed for large traffic volumes moving between close-in areas along the Hudson and East rivers. The Lower Manhattan Expressway should be completed to join together the disconnected portions of the regional network approaching lower Manhattan.

The segment of the Lower Manhattan Expressway from the Holland Tunnel to the Williamsburg Bridge received the I-78 designation, while the spur to the Manhattan Bridge received the I-478 designation. (The Manhattan Bridge spur was designated I-178 briefly, but the designation had to be changed because the spur connected I-78 with I-278.) The three connecting river crossings also received Interstate designations, making the entire Lower Manhattan complex, then estimated at $104 million, eligible for 90-percent Federal funding. State and city officials were under urgent pressure to build the expressway. If it were not built, Federal funding for the connecting river crossings would have been reduced from 90 percent to 50 percent.

To accommodate future traffic along the Lower Manhattan corridor, Moses proposed construction of a third tube to the Holland Tunnel. The third tube, which would allow four lanes of traffic in one direction during rush-hour periods, was to be constructed in conjunction with the expressway. While the Port Authority voiced support for an eventual third tube, it did not allocate funds for the proposal.

Another artist's conception from the 1950's shows the interchange between the Manhattan Bridge I-478 spur (shown in the foreground) and the Williamsburg Bridge I-78 spur (show in the background) of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Sara D. Roosevelt Park is shown through the center of the drawing. (Figure by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.)

THE "MEAT AX:" The contentious public hearings on the Lower Manhattan Expressway had grown more strident by the 1960's. Construction of the expressway was to have displaced 1,972 families and 804 businesses. Moses planned construction of new apartment units for those displaced by the expressway, but remained stubborn regarding his methods:

You can draw any kind of pictures you like on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra and Brasilia, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis you have to hack your way with a meat ax.

Jane Jacobs, a leading opponent of "Lomex," cited the expressway as an example of poor urban planning. In her work,
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she described the potential impact as follows:

Look at what (they) have built... Low-income centers that have become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums that they were supposed to replace… Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums… Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

Moses responded as follows:

The route of the proposed expressway passes through a deteriorating area with low property values due in considerable part to heavy traffic that now clogs the surface streets. Construction of the expressway will relieve traffic on these streets and allow this locality to develop in a normal manner that will encourage improved housing, increased business activity, higher property values, a general rise in the prosperity of the area, and an increase in real estate tax revenues. This has been the experience again and again in localities in the city where modern parkways and expressways have been built. The Grand Central Parkway and the Belt Parkway have produced these results, and it is now happening along the Long Island Expressway. There is every reason to expect that it will also happen in the case of the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

During this time, one small portion of the Lower Manhattan Expressway was actually constructed. The approach ("undercrossing") to the expressway at Chrystie and Broome Streets was built in 1962 at a cost of $941,000. The rationale for the construction of this 80-foot-by-80 foot segment was pre-emptive: otherwise, the subway would have to be dug up again to accommodate road construction.

However, construction crews would not be working on the expressway for long. Later that year, the New York City Board of Estimate rejected a budget appropriation for the expressway. Mayor Wagner cited as reasons the imminent completion of bypass routes (such as the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge), widespread upheaval of homes and businesses, and the effects of loss of revenues from the taxable properties demolished and the decrease in revenues from properties adjacent to the proposed expressway.

In his 1965 testimony before the New York State Joint Legislative Committee on Metropolitan and Regional Area Studies, Moses defended his Lower Manhattan Expressway rebuilt West Side Highway proposals under the Federal-aid Interstate highway program. The Committee Chairman, Manhattan State Senator Paul Bookson (whose district was to be affected by the expressway), said that the "Triborough (Authority) sells ideas without consulting anyone" and was a "superinsulated government."

Countering opposition by Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and Congressman (and future Mayor) Ed Koch, Mayor Lindsay proposed a cut-and-cover and tunnel construction for the Lower Manhattan Expressway in mid-1968. To help blend the Lower Manhattan Expressway into the urban environment, Lindsay proposed using air rights above the highway for buildings and parks. Completion of this segment of I-78 was scheduled for 1978.

However, even this proposal ran into controversy. Helen J. Leavitt wrote the following in
Superhighway - Superhoax:

As the project was planned, it would take a year of further study, two years to construct, and a new price tag of $150 million for its 1.5-mile length from the Holland Tunnel... to the Williamsburg Bridge. It would consist of ten lanes, a center mall, and emergency parking facilities. The open cut would extend from the Williamsburg Bridge to Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue). The remainder would be tunneled. Assemblyman Louis DeSalvio replied, "The underground idea is better than the elevated highway proposal, but we don't want to see any highway at all."

However, the Lindsay Administration neglected to alert the Federal Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) to important information that had been gathered by traffic and land use planners for the Lower East Side Civic Improvement Association. The data included the fact that development of new office space in Lower Manhattan failed to bring on the predicted increase in vehicular traffic in the area. Furthermore, there had been a decline of nearly 100,000 jobs in the shipping and trucking industries in Lower Manhattan since 1960. Moreover, the cut-and-cover plan still advocated by Lindsay would result in the loss of some 10,000 additional unskilled and semi-skilled workers of the inner city.

Worse still, Lindsay and Moses had based their claim on the need for the highway on two studies undertaken by the engineering firm of Madigan-Hyland. The studies were based on 1958 traffic counts, meaningless by 1968 when the project won Bureau approval, and even more so by 1978 when the expressway would be open for traffic.

These concerns, along with a November 1968 study predicting increased carbon monoxide levels in the vicinity of the proposed road, sealed the doom of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. The New York City Board of Estimate demapped the project in August 1969, and on March 24, 1971, Governor Nelson Rockefeller officially killed the expressway. Interstate funding for this highway, and the I-478 designation, were subsequently transferred to the West Side Highway reconstruction, or "Westway."

However, Moses held out hope that the expressway would eventually be built, as he wrote in the following excerpt from his autobiography
Public Works: A Dangerous Trade:

Apparently the expressway has been shelved for the present. On the other hand, most of the parties concerned, including the Downtown Manhattan Association, the Regional Plan Association and others, agree that there must eventually be a Lower Manhattan Expressway. Nobody knows how access to the Holland Tunnel will be provided, how access to the new Battery complex will be provided, how the tenants will be moved, where and at whose expense, or how the pollution issue will be resolved.

Another artist's conception -- this one from 1959 -- shows the elevated Lower Manhattan Expressway from street level. (Figure by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.)

THE NEW "LOMEX": In 1998, discussions in the newsgroup misc.transport.road focused on reviving plans for Interstate 78 through New York City. To start the discussions, Douglas A. Willinger of the Takoma Park Highway Design Studio outlined his plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway as follows:

From the new Bushwick Expressway (which was the original routing in Brooklyn), Interstate 78 would continue west through Manhattan via the Williamsburg (and Manhattan) Bridges, supplemented with new tunnels, to an underground Lower Manhattan Expressway. This would be partially cut and cover (beneath existing right of way as Delancey Street and Canal Street), and bored tunnel (to avoid taking historic buildings in SoHo), continuing to an expanded Holland Tunnel facility.

In sharp contrast to past cancelled plans for this road link, this new plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway would include an architectural treatment of Delancy Street and the Williamsburg Bridge to restore its pre-1914 charm and the bridge approach stonework. Included would be plans to reintroduce a cross-town trolley (street car).


In response, Paul Schlictman, frequent contributor to nycroads.com, raised concerns about construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway:

Well, there are some major issues here, particularly in Manhattan.  A cut-and-cover tunnel approach, or a bored tunnel, would encounter the problems of the thick concentration of subway lines in this corridor. There is a subway under Delancey Street, and lines running perpendicular to Delancey at Essex Street, Chrystie Street, and Centre Street (so there are two perpendicular tunnels at different depths). The subway at Centre Street is also the curve and switch for the J and M line to turn downtown. There are also subway lines to be crossed at Broadway, Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue) and Varick Street, adjacent to the Holland Tunnel approach ramps.

Ralph Herman, another contributor to nycroads.com, raised additional issues concerning the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, as well as the upgrading of connecting Hudson River and East River crossings:

If (and it is a very remote "if") the Lower Manhattan Expressway (I-78) were ever constructed, they would be connected to deficient river crossings with vertical and horizontal roadway clearance problems for interstate trucking. Also, these river crossings currently carry traffic loads above their original design capacity, and thus would not able to could not accommodate additional traffic. The Holland Tunnel, which is maintained by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, would have to be upgraded and expanded. In the case of the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, which are toll-free bridges maintained by the New York City Department of Transportation, would need to be replaced. Add to this the cost of tunneling expressways through some of the most expensive real estate in the nation, blasting through solid bedrock while not disturbing building foundations, subway and utility lines, and you have a project that would easily make the Boston Central Artery project appear simple and cheap by comparison.

One year later, Douglas A. Willinger returned to misc.transport.road to make the case for a Lower Manhattan Expressway tunnel:

Certainly, the added cost of tunneled roads is still going to be sufficiently significant to preclude their widespread use. However, for road links that would handle and serve large amounts of traffic, they can be justified. Such an underground tunnel would certainly be justified for the Lower Manhattan Expressway between the Holland Tunnel and the Williamsburg-Manhattan bridges. To supplement the Lower Manhattan Expressway, new tubes will have to be constructed across the Hudson and East rivers.

With regard to these potential projects, bored tunneling was cited at an April 1997 Regional Planning Association panel as providing the advantage of far less surface disruption than cut-and-cover tunnels, thus having the advantage of being far more politically feasible. Moreover, bored tunneling would offer more latitude in determining a road link's exact alignment, providing greater flexibility in avoiding building foundations, subways and utility lines.

An express tunnel directly connecting New Jersey with Brooklyn without access to Manhattan would be a logical thing, even if in conjunction with a more local crosstown Manhattan tunnel with exits serving lower Manhattan. However, because of the construction and maintenance expenses involved, it would have to be built as a toll facility.

In its 1999 research paper, "How To Build Our Way Out of Congestion," the Reason Public Policy Institute advocated a proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway tunnel, citing high land values and local antagonism in the area. The proposed tunnel, which would be based on the new Paris "Metroroutes," would allow urban buses and most fire equipment, but not heavy trucks or long-distance coaches. Nevertheless, smaller vehicles that constitute more than 90 percent of rush-hour traffic flows would be permitted, allowing for considerable cost savings.

This 2007 photo shows a model of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway near the corner of Delancey and Chrystie streets. The model, which was built in the early 1960's, shows the low-rise buildings that currently dot the area were to have been replaced by mid-to-high-rise buildings. (Photos from the Museum of the City of New York exhibit "Robert Moses and the Modern City: Remaking the Metropolis.")

THE DEATH OF LOMEX, AND THE BIRTH OF SOHO: Since the late 1940's, the specter of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway discouraged landlords from either tearing down or improving buildings in a 30-square block south of Houston Street. Built as one of the first industrial districts in the United States, tenants left the aging cast-iron buildings for more spacious and easily accessible facilities in the suburbs.

By the late 1950's, artists began moving into the unimproved lofts. The new postwar generation of artists - the "abstract expressionists" - produced large, bulky works that could not be produced in the smaller apartments of Greenwich Village. Some artists even lived in the lofts, in complete violation of the building code.

The artists joined the fight to kill the proposed expressway, and in the process, created a sense of community where none had existed before. In 1968, painter and engineer Aaron Roseman proposed naming the community "SoHo" after observing that a City Planning Commission report referred to the 30-square-foot area as the "South (of) Houston Industrial District." When the expressway was killed in 1971, Mayor Lindsay legitimized SoHo by modifying the zoning laws to allow the artists to live as well as work in the area. By the end of the 1970's, SoHo was acknowledged as the leading world center of cutting-edge art. During the 1990's, the creative reputation of SoHo spawned a new industry - interactive media - in Lower Manhattan.

This 1996 photo shows the Manhattan approach to the Manhattan Bridge. Note the abandoned roadbed that ends in midair (center of photo). This was to be part of the I-478 spur of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. In the 1960's, I-478 was assigned to the segment between the proposed I-78 in Manhattan and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (I-278) in Brooklyn, via the Manhattan Bridge. The I-78 mainline was to continue into Brooklyn via the Williamsburg Bridge. (Photo by Jeff Saltzman.)

SOURCES: "Vital Gaps in the New York Metropolitan Arterial System," Triborough Bridge Authority (1940); "Master Plan: Express Highways, Parkways and Major Streets," New York City Planning Commission (1941); "Report on the Proposed Lower Manhattan Crosstown Express Highway," Office of the Manhattan Borough President (1943); Joint Study of Arterial Facilities, The Port of New York Authority and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1955); "Future Arterial Program for New York City," Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1963); "Expressway Plans," Regional Plan Association News (May 1964); Arterial Progress 1959-1965, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1965); Transportation 1985: A Regional Plan, Tri-State Transportation Commission (1966); Road to Ruin by A.Q. Mowbray, J.B. Lippincott Company (1969); Superhighway - Superhoax by Helen Leavitt, Doubleday and Company (1970); Public Works: A Dangerous Trade by Robert Moses, McGraw-Hill (1970); "Lower Manhattan Road Killed Under State Plan" by Francis X. Clines, The New York Times (3/25/1971); The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, Vintage Books-Random House (1974); "SoHo Intact, Expressway Buried" by Susan Heller Anderson and David W. Dunlap, The New York Times (8/25/1986); Divided Highways by Tom Lewis, Viking-Penguin Books (1997); "Highway Hopes That Faded" by Sidney C. Schaer, Newsday (11/05/1999); New York: An Illustrated History by Ric Burns, James Sanders and Lisa Ades, Alfred A. Knopf Publishing-Random House (1999); "How To Build Our Way Out of Congestion" by Peter Samuel and Robert W. Poole, Jr., Reason Public Policy Institute (1999); Ralph Herman; Nick Klissas; Michael G. Koerner; Tom Scannello; Paul Schlictman; Stephen Summers; Rush Wickes; Douglas A. Willinger.

  • I-78 and I-478 shields by Ralph Herman.
  • Lightposts by Jeff Saltzman.

LOWER MANHATTAN EXPRESSWAY LINKS:

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