This 1963 map from Future Arterial Program for New York City shows the proposed Mid-Manhattan Expressway, with connections to the Lincoln Tunnel and the West Side Highway (NY 9A) to the west. (Map by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.)
"Can you imagine an elevated expressway at 30th Street just so Long Island guys could get to New Jersey?" -- Robert Stern, architect
A SKYWAY LIKE NONE OTHER: First proposed in 1926 by the Regional Plan Association, the Mid-Manhattan Expressway was adopted as part of the Association's 1929 master arterial plan, Plan of New York and Its Environs. The expressway was also adopted in New York City's 1941 master plan of express highways as follows:
Mid-Manhattan Crosstown Highway: This is a proposed express connection between the Queens-Midtown and Lincoln tunnels to serve crosstown traffic from the tunnels, through traffic between Long Island and New Jersey, and local crosstown Manhattan traffic. The Commission agrees in principle to the desirability of exits and entrances in the center of the island in a Manhattan crosstown express route. This is an essential part of the highway pattern that has not been built because of the difficulties of financing the project. However, it would appear that the travel time savings that it would afford to very large volumes of traffic, would warrant an expenditure of the amount required for its construction. Consideration should be given to the financing of this improvement as a toll facility. Engineers for the Borough President of Manhattan have estimated that its cost as a tunnel would be approximately $40,000,000.
As envisioned by New York City arterial coordinator Robert Moses in the 1940's, the Mid-Manhattan Expressway was to have been an elevated, limited-access link between the Queens-Midtown and Lincoln tunnels. After receiving the I-495 designation in October 1958, this crosstown artery was to have connected the I-495 segment in New Jersey with the Long Island Expressway in Queens.
From Joint Study of Arterial Facilities, published by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and the Port of New York Authority in 1955:
An elevated expressway, from its connection with the West Side Highway, would start as a depressed highway in the center of a widened 30th Street to 10th Avenue. At this point, it would swing to the north side of 30th Street to make connections between 10th and 9th Avenues with the Lincoln Tunnel Third Tube approaches now under construction. After underpassing 9th Avenue, the six-lane expressway would rise to overpass 8th Avenue and continue across Manhattan as an elevated structure. Between 8th and 7th Avenues the roadway would recross 30th Street and occupy a one-hundred-foot right-of-way immediately south of 30th Street. After overpassing 2nd Avenue, the expressway would swing north to follow the 30th Street alignment as a four-lane elevated expressway to connections with the East River (FDR) Drive.
At 1st and 2nd Avenues, ramps would be constructed to provide access to and from the Queens-Midtown Tunnel via 1st and 2nd Avenues and the existing tunnel approach roadways. Access to the expressway would be provided in each direction in the section between 5th and 7th Avenues.
If the expressway were constructed, it is estimated that it would be used to its estimated capacity of 24,000,000 vehicles a year.
It is estimated that the cost of the elevated expressway alone would be $77,000,000, of which $33,500,000 represents real estate.
One unique feature of the Mid-Manhattan Expressway was that it allowed for development above and beneath the expressway. The two three-lane roadways, ten stories above street level, would be separated by a median, in which elevators serving the development above the expressway would be installed. Beneath the expressway, space for commercial development and parking would have been provided. According to the Joint Study, the development would have added another $14 million to the cost of the expressway.
Two artists' conceptions of the elevated Mid-Manhattan Expressway. The left composite shows the expressway tunneling under skyscrapers that would have been constructed through the sale of air rights. (Photos by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.)
WHY NOT A MID-MANHATTAN TUNNEL? As early as 1937, the Regional Plan Association advocated construction of a four-lane, twin-tube tunnel under 36th Street and 37th Street. According to the Moses-headed Joint Study, the chief argument against the Mid-Manhattan Expressway Tunnel was its cost. This would have ranged from $119 million for a no-exit, express link between the Lincoln Tunnel and Queens-Midtown Tunnel, to $145 million for a tunnel link that would have provided entrances and exits at 5th Avenue.
The proposed construction method was described in the Joint Study as follows:
It would be necessary to build two separate tubes under adjacent crosstown streets. A two-lane eastbound tube could pass under 29th Street; a two-lane tube westbound under 30th Street. Ventilation buildings would be located in the block between 29th and 30th Streets fronting on the west side of 8th Avenue and the east side of Lexington Avenue. The least costly type of construction for such a tunnel would be the steel-bent and concrete subway-type, installed by cut-and-cover method.
The tunnel providing only two lanes in each direction would, of course, have only two-thirds the capacity of a six-lane expressway. Provision of more than two lanes in each tube is not feasible due to limitations imposed by building foundations on either side of 29th and 30th Streets and extremely high costs. Limited street access in Midtown could be provided in the vicinity of 5th Avenue at a cost that would depend on the degree to which the interchange was developed.
To accommodate future traffic along the Mid-Manhattan corridor, Moses proposed construction of a $120 million third tube to the Queens-Midtown 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.
EARLY SUPPORT FADES: Through a succession of mayors, Moses managed to find support for his Mid-Manhattan Expressway. He also received the support of most of the New York press, particularly The New York Times. When the Federal Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) added the expressway in
However, by the early 1960's, with sentiment beginning to shift in favor of mass transit, the landscape changed for the worse for Moses. The new editorial-page editor of the Times, John Oakes, explained the newspaper's change of heart:
As a newspaper we have previously endorsed those crosstown expressways (the Mid-Manhattan and Lower Manhattan), and we stand by that earlier endorsement. But we must admit to a growing disenchantment with great urban highway and expressway schemes.
Nevertheless, Moses and the Tri-State Transportation Commission continued to advocate construction of the Mid-Manhattan Expressway. In its 1966 report, Transportation 1985: A Regional Plan, the Commission stated the following:
A route crossing midtown Manhattan, connecting the East River (FDR) Drive and the West Side Highway, as well and the Lincoln and Queens-Midtown tunnels, has long been proposed. It is intended to remove from city streets traffic that wishes to cross from one side of the island to the other. This facility, currently a segment of the Federal Interstate highway system, would penetrate the area of highest-cost real estate and greatest commercial density in the nation. Clearly, this should receive the most intensive study and design evaluations to assess whether such a roadway can be satisfactorily adapted to the very dense and complicated environment. Also, the potential effect on the delicate transit balance in the midtown area must be carefully weighed, particularly in view of the proposed East River subway tunnel. In such an evaluation, radical departures from the present design concept should be examined.
In August 1969, the New York City Planning Commission recommended against building the Mid-Manhattan and Lower Manhattan Expressways. On March 24, 1971, Governor Nelson Rockefeller killed plans for the Mid-Manhattan Expressway, along with those for at least a half-dozen other Interstate highways in New York City.
A REMNANT OF THE EXPRESSWAY LIVES ON: During the immediate postwar years, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) attempted to purchase parcels of land for the elevated Mid-Manhattan Expressway. One parcel was purchased for the expressway at the northwest corner of Second Avenue and East 29th Street. After the expressway was canceled, the TBTA extended a permit for the New York City Parks Department to operate the parcel, which measures one-third of an acre, as a playground. The TBTA contributed $25,000 for what became known as the Vincent F. Albano, Jr. Playground, which was designed by renowned architect M. Paul Friedberg.
This 2007 photo shows a model of the proposed Mid-Manhattan Expressway along 30th Street. The model, which was built in 1966 and restored recently, shows the Empire State Building on the right and the proposed Madison Square Garden (which opened in 1968) on the left. (Photos from the Museum of the City of New York exhibit "Robert Moses and the Modern City: Remaking the Metropolis.")
NO "MIRACLE ON 34th STREET:" Although the I-495 designation was officially removed years ago in Manhattan and New Jersey, you can still see "TO I-495" signs (with a directional arrow) along 34th Street in midtown Manhattan, between the Lincoln and Queens-Midtown tunnels.
In 1998, discussions in the newsgroup misc.transport.road focused on reviving plans for I-495 across midtown Manhattan. Ralph Herman, frequent contributor to nycroads.com, explained why this may not be a good idea as follows:
If (and it is a very remote "if") the Mid-Manhattan Expressway (I-495) were ever constructed, it 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 therefore could not carry additional traffic. The Queens-Midtown and Lincoln Tunnels, which are maintained by MTA Bridges and Tunnels and by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey respectively, would need to be upgraded and expanded. 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 make the Boston Central Artery project appear simple and cheap by comparison.
One year later, Douglas A. Willinger of the Takoma Park Highway Design Studio made the case for a Mid-Manhattan Expressway tunnel in misc.transport.road:
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 Mid-Manhattan Expressway between the Lincoln and Queens-Midtown underwater tunnels. To supplement the Mid-Manhattan Expressway, new tubes will certainly 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 Queens without access to Manhattan would be a logical thing, even if in conjunction with a more local crosstown Manhattan tunnel with exits serving the East Side and the West Side. 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 Mid-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.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: In 1958, the I-495 designation was given to the proposed Mid-Manhattan Expressway. The expressway was removed from official plans in 1971, but I-495 signs live on in Manhattan. These are sample I-495 signs found along East 34th Street in Midtown Manhattan. Although the official FHWA log shows the Long Island Expressway west of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (I-278) as NY 495, all signs along this section of the LIE, as well as signs leading to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, have I-495 shields. These 1998 photos show the I-495 designation along 34th Street. (Left photo by Steve Anderson; right photo by Jeff Royston.)
SOURCES: "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); "Third Tube for Midtown Tunnel Advanced by Plan for New Study" by Joseph C. Ingraham, The New York Times (1/01/1965); Arterial Progress 1959-1965, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1965); Transportation 1985: A Regional Plan, Tri-State Transportation Commission (1966); 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); Divided Highways by Tom Lewis, Viking-Penguin Books (1997); "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; Paul Schlictman; Rush Wickes; Douglas A. Willinger.
I-495 shield by Ralph Herman. Lightposts by Jeff Saltzman.