By the late 1920s, congestion across the four East River bridges
was already miserable, and a plan was needed to connect the two major islands
of New York City
yet again and try to relieve
the strain. The Holland Tunnel
's sucessful 1927 opening created desire to build a tunnel across the East River
. Of course, considering the time in which the tunnel was started
, and the peculiar geography of the East River
, the task would not be easy.
The East River crossing itself was comparitively painless. There were already two tunnels crossing the river, the Steinway Tunnels that ran to 42nd St. (started by the NY & LI in the late 19th century and finished under August Belmont in 1907; now used by the 7 Train) and the Pennsylvania R.R. tunnels to 34th St. (now used by the Long Island Railroad). However, in contrast to the silt that lined the bottom of the Hudson, no fewer than five variations of bedrock line the bottom of the East River: Manhattan schist; Inwood limestone, Fordham gneiss, Hell Gate dolomite, and Brooklyn injection gneiss.1 The area between these rock formations is also filled with crushed rock from the weathering of the bedrock, combined with sands that are the mark of the glacier that once covered the New York area. The site of the Manhattan approach had to be handled carefully since the land mass was already well populated. A fault was also discovered on the Manhattan side which necessitated relocation of the building housing the western ventilation equipment. (The fault is no longer active, according to geological research, so the fact that the tunnel crosses it should not be a worry). The slope of the Manhattan side of the river also required the tunnel to curve south from the river crossing until slightly before its 36th st. exit.
Ground was finally broken on October 2, 1936. Although the tunnel would usually end up only advancing 32 inches per day (in comparison to the Hudson tunneling that moved along at almost 48 feet per day), the two teams of sandhogs (one tunneling from Manhattan, the other from Queens) met within the Fordham gniess on November 8, 1939. Both tubes of the tunnel were finished a year later on November 15th, 1940, and the first passenger was the same person who broke the ground to start the project four years earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The tunnel took three fewer years to construct than the Holland Tunnel, even with all the complications; this was due at least in part to chief engineer Ole Singstad, whose previous work on the Holland Tunnel and consultation on the Lincoln Tunnel gave him new insights on how to overcome these challenges.
The political challenges, however, were possibly more varied and almost certainly more annoying. The first hurdle came extremely early, six years before the tunnel was even started. The New York Board of Transportation was allowed $2 million to design and construct a tunnel in 1929, and a plan was drawn in 1930 that the Army Corps of Engineers liked and were going to start work on, but the Great Depression stopped anything from happening for several years.
New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia established the New York City Tunnel Authority in 1936 with the goal of building a tunnel across the East River to eventually link (overland) with the Lincoln Tunnel started two years earlier to provide access from Queens to New Jersey. The project was approved by President Roosevelt through the Public Works Administration, who lent the city $58 million. Of course, once Robert Moses got wind of money coming into the city for infrastructure improvements, he wanted in on it, if not total control of it. LaGuardia disallowed this, knowing that Roosevelt and Moses did not see eye to eye. Moses knew that another crossing at midtown would help the city, even after his Triborough Bridge (currently under construction) was finished; however, since he was not allowed to be part of the project (and certainly not to head it), he instead tried to sabotage it. Moses laid out a plan for a bridge to land on 37th st., which was vetoed due to the costs it would take to condemn and demolish the buildings in its path, as well as the loss of revenue from those buildings and their taxable occupants. Moses then tried to go over LaGuardia's head and complain to the State of New York; the governor, Herbert Lehman, overruled Moses and sided with New York City's Little Flower.
Unfortunately, in spending all of the money required to build this tunnel, the planned Brooklyn-Battery tunnel, and Moses' Belt Parkway, the city ran out of money in 1938 and could obtain no more from the Public Works Administration. Moses' Triborough Bridge Authority, however, had a $30 million surplus, and LaGuardia was forced to join his NYC Tunnel Authority to the Triborough Bridge Authority. The tunnel, as mentioned, was completed in 1940, even though the two companies did not officially merge until 1946.
The tunnel originally let out onto a mile-long highway that connected with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Moses originally wanted nothing to do with this highway, since it led into a tunnel he didn't control, but once the companies were merged into the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Moses shifted gears and laid plans for the Queens-Midtown Expressway, which would later become the western end of the Long Island Expressway, terminating at Queens Boulevard. Moses wanted a third tube built in the 1960s, in order to increase revenue for the TBTA (the tunnel, along with the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel, accounted for a sizeable portion of its income), and also to attempt to get the Mid-Manhattan Expressway built once again and complete his vision of the Interboro Parkway. The steep cost ($475 million with expressways, $120 million for the tunnel alone) combined with the public's displeasure with the idea of even more highways, caused these plans to be scrapped.
The tunnel is now under the control of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The tunnel is currently undergoing a six-year rehabilitation project. The first stage, completed in 2001, was to build a new roof for the tunnel. The second, still ongoing, is an overhaul of the exhaust system (originally designed in 1940 to completely recycle the air every 90 seconds) and to generally update the signage and other technology.
The tunnel itself is amazingly well blended into the area; rather than the open tunnels of the Holland that can be seen for some distance down Canal Street, the Manhattan side opens onto a building between 36th and 37th streets; the portal itself is topped by a small, fenced park. The Queens approach is mostly surrounded by warehouses in an otherwise unremarkable area of Queens.
The north tube of the tunnel is 6,272' long; the southern 6,414'. Both tubes are 12'1" high inside. The tunnel tubes are 31' in total diameter, and are also 1'6" wider on the inside than those of the Holland, so designed to accomodate the wider cars in fashion at the time.
The toll plaza is on the Queens side; like most MTA river crossings, the toll at this writing is $3.50 each way. (The Verrazano is the only exception, being $7 Staten Island-bound only).
The tunnel is located at least 13 feet below the bottom of the East River; this level was mandated by the U.S. War Department. The East River is used for shipping and thusly requires periodic dredging; this level is meant to insure that such dredging will never harm the tunnel.
The streetlamps on the Manhattan side, called "Jetsons" by streetlight fan Kevin Walsh of Forgotten NY, were inspired in part by the futuristic worldview brought about by the 1939-1940 World's Fair. The streetlights still stand today, and have recently been rehabilitated.
The tunnel is technically part of Interstate 495, although it is listed by the FHWA as part of NY 495; the difference is unclear to me at least.