This aerial camera view from 2001 shows the Highbridge interchange looking west. Note the arched portal for the former 179th Street Tunnel on the right side of the photo. The old tunnel is now used as storage space. (WNBC-TV photo supplied by Dave Block.)
The Trans-Manhattan Expressway, which traverses the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan, connects the Cross Bronx Expressway with the George Washington Bridge. Coming from the Bronx, the expressway carries designations for I-95 and US 1. The US 9 designation is added in Manhattan just before the bridge. The expressway, which carries more than 250,000 vehicles per day (AADT) on its 12 lanes, began its life as a pair of modest two-lane tunnels.
THE 178th AND 179th STREET TUNNELS: Immediately after World War II, Robert Moses constructed a bypass - a predecessor to the Trans-Manhattan Expressway - through the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan that would connect the bridge with highways in the Bronx. Between 1938 and 1952, two 2-lane tunnels were constructed from the George Washington Bridge to the approaches of the Washington (Heights) Bridge and the Harlem River Drive (which was then under construction). Eastbound traffic used the 178th Street Tunnel, while westbound tunnel used the 179th Street Tunnel.
More from the 1952 report, "George Washington Bridge Approach and Highbridge Expressway Interchange," as follows:
The 179thStreet Tunnel, built by the Port of New York Authority at a cost of $9,000,000, provides a two-lane, subsurface westbound connection between the Harlem River Drive, the 181st Street (Washington Heights) Bridge, the Cross Bronx Expressway and the George Washington Bridge. The two-lane 178th Street Tunnel, which the Port Authority built and opened in 1940, will be used for eastbound traffic from the George Washington Bridge. Construction was begun March 17, 1949, and the tunnel's reinforced concrete shell was completed on June 21, 1951.
The $5,300,000 Highbridge Interchange, the connecting link between the George Washington Bridge (via the approach tunnels), the Cross Bronx Expressway and the Harlem River Drive, features a soaring two-lane viaduct supported on a single row of long slender columns. The construction of the interchange required extensive reconstruction in Highbridge Park, including promenades, walks, playgrounds, and a new pumping station. As the westerly terminus of the Cross Bronx Expressway, the old Washington (Heights) Bridge over the Harlem River has been widened, and provisions have been made for future additional capacity.
The tunnels were designed in traditional Moses-style, utilizing stone-faced arch portals and "Whitestone" lightposts. Viaducts with single circular supports that connected the tunnels with the Washington (Heights) Bridge are still in use today.
Originally, traffic bound from the tunnels to the Cross Bronx Expressway was to cross the Harlem River over the Washington Bridge, which was built in 1888. However, after less than five years, the traffic demands were too much on the two 2-lane tunnels and the older Washington Bridge. A new solution would be sought to meet the future demands of interstate traffic. Furthermore, the ventilation buildings of the old tunnels were situated such that they would be functionally obsolete for future expansion of the lower deck of the George Washington Bridge.
Bob Olmstead, chairman of the History and Heritage Committee of the Metropolitan Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and author of the "Guide to Civil Engineering Projects in and Around New York City," wrote the following about the two abandoned tunnels:
The 178th Street Tunnel was built before World War II, and the 179th Street Tunnel followed in the early 1950s. I worked on the construction of the 179th Street Tunnel about 1950. The two tunnels are both intact, but the ventilation buildings were demolished to make way for the Trans-Manhattan Expressway in the early 1960s, rendering the tunnels useless. Traces of the portals remain if you look at exactly the right place.
An early incarnation of the Trans-Manhattan Expressway, the 178th Street and 179th Street tunnels, connected the George Washington Bridge with the Bronx. LEFT: This 1952 photo shows the eastern posteral of the 179th Street Tunnel. The tunnel has since been replaced by the expressway. RIGHT: This photo, also taken in 1952, carried traffic from the eastbound 178th Street Tunnel into the eastbound Washington (Heights) Bridge. This viaduct is still in use. (Photos by Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, LC-G613-61553 and LC-G613-61558.)
A NEW EXPRESSWAY ACROSS UPPER MANHATTAN: The construction of the Trans-Manhattan Expressway was undertaken in conjunction with the lower level of the George Washington Bridge. The ventilation buildings, which were along the right-of-way for the proposed expressway, were demolished to make way for the 12-lane road. Meanwhile, the original tunnels were left abandoned.
From the 1955 Joint Study of Arterial Facilities by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and the Port of New York Authority:
The New York approaches to the lower deck of the George Washington Bridge would provide an interchange with the Henry Hudson Parkway (NY 9A) and Riverside Drive, as well as to the local Washington Heights area, by means of extensive modification of the existing approaches.
At present, express traffic across Manhattan to and from the George Washington Bridge is handled by means of the Port Authority's 178th Street and 179th Street Tunnels. To augment these tunnels, an east-west expressway would be provided against Manhattan Island. Occupying the entire block between 178th and 179th Streets, the expressway would connect with the Cross Bronx Expressway by means of a new Harlem River (later known as the "Alexander Hamilton") Bridge. The new bridge would be built by the State of New York as part of the Cross Bronx Expressway under construction.
On the Manhattan side of the Harlem River in Highbridge Park, direct connections would be provided with Amsterdam Avenue and with the Harlem River Bridge which, when the extension south to 125th Street is completed, will be an additional north-south artery in Manhattan.
Originally planned in 1955 as an open-cut design, the 12-lane Trans-Manhattan Expressway opened to traffic in 1962 as part of a $60 million program to improve access roads for the George Washington Bridge, whose lower deck also opened that year. The expressway is one of the few examples in New York City, and one of the earliest in the United States, where air rights over major highways are used. Upon completion of the expressway, the Port Authority Bridge Plaza bus terminal (which serves North Jersey communities via the George Washington Bridge) and apartment buildings opened above the expressway.
Robert Moses said the following at the completion of the George Washington Bridge lower level and the Trans-Manhattan Expressway:
The depressed Trans-Manhattan Expressway connecting the George Washington Bridge and the Alexander Hamilton Bridge across the Harlem River will be fully opened to traffic with the completion of the Cross Bronx Expressway. This is the first expressway to be built across Manhattan, and we hope that the Lower Manhattan and Mid-Manhattan expressways, both of which have been the victims of inordinate and inexcusable delays caused by intemperate opposition and consequent official hesitation, will follow. These crosstown facilities are indispensable to be effectiveness of the entire metropolitan arterial objective of removing traffic through congested city streets.
Stan Lechner, a civil engineer who has spent 50 years with the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), added that it cost $1.5 million (in 1962 dollars) for only the 700-foot-long section on which he was chief engineer: the complex interchange between the Trans-Manhattan Expressway, the Alexander Hamilton Bridge and the Harlem River Drive.
Victor Ross, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), said the following about the Trans-Manhattan Expressway in 1986:
It's not wider than it is long, but its only rate of growth has been in its width. It has had to link up with the Henry Hudson Parkway and the Harlem River Drive.
LEFT: Looking east along the route of the Trans-Manhattan Expressway in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, as shown in this 1960 photo. The Washington (Heights) Bridge, which lies in the background, would be accompanied two years later by the Alexander Hamilton Bridge. RIGHT: This 1962 photo shows the completed interchange between the Trans-Manhattan Expressway (I-95, US 1 and US 9), the Henry Hudson Parkway (NY 9A) and Riverside Drive. (Photos by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.)
SHOULD THE OLD TUNNELS BE RECYCLED? What should become of the abandoned 178th Street and 179th Street tunnels? Douglas A. Willinger of the Takoma Park Highway Design Studio, a contributor to nycroads.com and misc.transport.road, provides the following recommendation:
Transit would be one possibility, though I would imagine that this pair of tunnels would be useless for a transit line that continued onto the George Washington Bridge, given that the space for transit on this bridge is in the middle, while these tunnels flank the outer edges of the mainline I-95 roadway.
For this same reason, these tunnels would probably not work for bringing traffic onto the bridge; however, I could definitely see them recycled for capacity enhancement along the Trans-Manhattan Expressway, by employing them not for traffic to the bridge but rather for traffic heading to the Henry Hudson Parkway, such as that from I-87, therefore separating this traffic from Manhattan-bound and New Jersey-bound traffic. Likewise, though I have not yet thought about how it could be done, the rights-of-way for the 178th Street and 179th Street tunnels could be employed for transit (e.g. light rail or bus lanes) within Manhattan, perhaps with a lower deck cut directly beneath these tunnels.
In any case, the western portion of these tunnels that converged toward the George Washington Bridge centerline and were thus demolished for the Trans-Manhattan Expressway will have to be replaced.
On a related note, replacing the existing open-cut highway with encased tunnels employing a ventilation-filtration system would be a prerequisite for a more humane I-95 through and for Manhattan.
The former 178th Street and 179th Street tunnels currently are used by the Port Authority as storage facilities for bridge and highway crews.
TUNNEL RE-USE UNDER CONSIDERATION: One option being considered in the "Bronx Arterial Needs Major Investment Study" would be to rehabilitate and reuse the tunnels to improve traffic on the Trans-Manhattan Expressway. The reopening of these tunnels would be done in conjunction with interchange improvements at EXIT 1A (NY 9A / Henry Hudson Parkway), EXIT 1B (Harlem River Drive), and EXITS 1C-1D (I-87 / Major Deegan Expressway). It would also be done with conjunction with a widening and reconstruction of the Alexander Hamilton Bridge, the need for which has been underscored with new truck restrictions - and resultant congestion - on the outer roadways of the Trans-Manhattan Expressway and the George Washington Bridge.
These 2000 photos show some of the ramps connecting the northbound Trans-Manhattan Expressway (I-95, US 1 and US 9) with upper Manhattan and the Port Authority-George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal. (Photos by Jim K. Georges.)
SOURCES: "George Washington Bridge Approach and Highbridge Expressway Interchange," The Port of New York Authority, New York State Department of Public Works and New York City Construction Coordinator (1952); Joint Study of Arterial Facilities, The Port of New York Authority-Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1955); "Cross Bronx Road Gets Revised Plan" by Joseph C. Ingraham, The New York Times (11/27/1958); "Lower Deck of George Washington Bridge Is Opened" by Joseph C. Ingraham, The New York Times (8/30/1962); "Cross Bronx Expressway and Alexander Hamilton Bridge," Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1963); Arterial Progress 1959-1965, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1965); The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, Vintage Books-Random House (1974); "Big Name and Short Road" by Susan Heller Anderson and David W. Dunlap, The New York Times (8/25/1986); "Inventory of Comparative Decking Projects," Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade and Douglas (2001); "Rx for Clogged Arteries" by Sy Oshinsky, Car and Travel (Automobile Club of New York) (March 2003); Dave Block; Dave Frieder; Ralph Herman; Stan Lechner; Bob Olmstead; Millie Seubert; Douglas A. Willinger.
I-95, US 1 and US 9 shields by Ralph Herman. Lightposts by Jeff Saltzman.