Were it not for a letter
from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt
, a lie
by Secretary of War Harry Woodring
, and the intervention
of some meddling kids
), the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel might have been the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge
; a more alliterative
choice, perhaps, but one that would have changed permanently
the face that New York City shows to the world
. With this bridge, Robert Moses
would have effectively scrawled
directly over the New York skyline
, usurping the view of the majestic buildings
and placing before them a structure of his own design
As early as 1929, it was noted that the three existing connections between Brooklyn and Manhattan were carrying an incredible number of cars per day, and that the number would only increase over time. A tunnel was proposed to link the Battery, at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, with Brooklyn's Red Hook area. This tunnel, besides joining the two islands, would connect two of Robert Moses' beloved highways together: the West Side Highway in Manhattan, and what was then still known as the Circumferential Bypass in southern Brooklyn.
The project had the support of Mayor LaGuardia, and was given official approval in November 1930. The Great Depression, however, delayed its building in favor of more pressing projects; the New York City Tunnel Authority would be created first to build the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. By the late 1930s, the City was essentially out of money for these projects, and the Public Works Administration would offer no more.
LaGuardia reluctantly turned to Moses and his Triborough Bridge Authority, which was running at an enormous surplus. The Mayor gave Moses control over the Tunnel Authority in exchange for the money. Moses went on to complete the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and build the access roads he had earlier denied the city, but turned up his nose at the idea of a tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Moses claimed that a bridge would better serve the needs of the people of the city and, more importantly, be cheaper to build than a tunnel, providing more impetus for financial backing. But in truth, Moses wanted a bridge because you could see a bridge for miles; you could look upon it and marvel at its engineering and beauty without having to actually use it. A tunnel, by contrast, Moses thought of as "[just] a hole in the ground". His proposed bridge would be similar in design to San Francisco's Bay Bridge, going from Hamilton Avenue in Brooklyn, finding its center point on Governors Island, and terminating in Battery Park, which would of course unfortunately have to be destroyed to make room for the bridge approaches.
For the first time, Robert Moses encountered opposition to his plans. Many of his earlier supporters knew what Battery Park was like, and felt that having a huge bridge tower overhead would ruin the beauty of the park; rather than it being a large, open area that provided refuge from the crowded streets of lower Manhattan, it would become a claustrophobic extension of these same streets, and New York would lose yet another open area. Many had sailed through New York Bay and were disgusted by this change that would block half of the skyline. Engineer Ole Singstad pointed out that the route planned for the approachways could lose the city millions in real estate taxes alone. But perhaps they were most disgusted by fact that this man, who came to power by creating parks, would destroy one of the last places left for New Yorkers to go and relax.
Of course, when Moses got an idea into his head, it was very hard to shake it loose. He informed the New York City Planning Commission that a bridge was the only viable way to construct this crossing. The Commission, although preferring a tunnel, listened to Moses and voted 4-2 to build the bridge. It was claimed that although 'valid objections' were indeed raised to the bridge, the crossing was necessary, and if a bridge was the only way, then a bridge it would have to be.
Enter the First Lady. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Robert Moses had a long-standing feud, starting back when Roosevelt was Governor of New York State. Roosevelt refused to stand idly by while Moses had his way with his hometown. On April 5, 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt used her newspaper column to opine of the public that perhaps there was a way to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan once more without throwing "elevated roadways, pillars, etc." over "[one] of the few beautiful spots that still remain to us on an overcrowded island?"
The death knell for the bridge was finally sounded by Secretary of War Harry Woodring, on July 17, 1939. Woodring claimed that the bridge would be seaward of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and in the event of war the bridge could be destroyed and block access to the Yard, hampering the war effort. The only flaw in this argument is that the already-built Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges also lay seaward of the Navy Yard and would pose just as much of a hazard. However, the government got its way, and the tunnel was started under Ole Singstad's guidance in October 1940.
Moses, of course, would not take this lying down. The New York Aquarium was at the time housed in Castle Clinton, a fort in Battery Park. Moses decided that the best place to put the entrance would be right where the fort stood; besides, he was building a much nicer aquarium in Coney Island, and wouldn't you prefer to go there? In 1941, the doors on the Castle Clinton Aquarium closed for the last time. Moses placed beams and architectual elements around the fort to make it appear structurally unsound, and almost succeeded in having the fort razed.
World War II stopped both the progress of the Tunnel and of the destruction of Castle Clinton. Citizens of New York successfully petitioned Congress to make the fort a National Monument, dedicating it so on August 12, 1946. Work on the tunnel was restarted in late 1945. In 1946, Robert Moses gained complete control over the Tunnel Authority, merging it with his Triborough Bridge Authority. He fired Singstad (one of his last acts of revenge on the tunnel proponents) and replaced him with Ralph Smillie, and the tunnel was opened on May 25, 1950 -- seven years behind schedule, yes, but there was a war on.
The final real bit of construction related to the tunnel was the building of the Battery Parking Garage by the TBTA at the Manhattan terminus; this was a much less shady project than the later one Moses proposed at the Queensboro Bridge (q.v.).
The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel is composed of two tubes, each carrying two lanes of traffic. At 9,117 feet, it was the longest continuous underwater vehicular tunnel in the world upon its construction, and remains so today. This length was mandated at least in part by the desire or necessity to place ventilation fans on Governors Island. The rings which make up the tunnel's exterior are 31' in diameter; inside, the tunnel is 11'9" high. Actual figures cannot be found, but comparison with other tunnels lets one safely assume that the tunnel rests at least 90' below the East River and Buttermilk Channel. The tunnel was opened after nearly ten years (with the aforementioned break in construction) at a cost of $90,568,000.
The tunnel's air recirculation system contains 53 fans which recycle the air completely every 90 seconds. There are four ventilation buildings: two in lower Manhattan; one in Brooklyn; and a fourth near Governors Island.
The tunnel makes up almost the entire length of New York's Interstate 478, with the rest of the interstate being composed of the Brooklyn access roads. The interstate was intended to be part of a superhighway intended to cover Manhattan's lower West Side; when this project was cancelled, the interstate became only the tunnel. Not as disturbing as the Hawaiian interstates, perhaps, but still curious. The tunnel is not, however, signed as I-478; the Manhattan signage advises motorists that the tunnel will take them to I-278.
The tunnel and the Battery Parking Garage have been run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority since the TBTA was merged into it in 1968. The fare as of this writing is the standard MTA $3.50 each way, with E-Z pass discounts. The MTA is currently finishing their rehabilitation of the tunnel and garage.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the tunnel was closed to all but emergency traffic for over a month. The restriction was lifted slightly a month later, allowing only buses into Manhattan during rush hours, since the West Side Highway was still closed. West Street was reopened to traffic on March 29, 2002, and cars were once again allowed to travel through the tunnel at all times, with HOV restrictions during the morning rush.
The tunnel is now supposedly under heavy guard, being seen as an optimal point of entry to or exit from Manhattan, and may be closed at any time in reaction to perceived threats. The tunnel was also the site of a memorial run in September 2002, honoring a firefighter who ran through the tunnel in order to meet up with his squad at the World Trade Center, and who presumably lost his life in the collapse.