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Queens Midtown Tunnel Turns 70

This week we celebrate the Queens Midtown Tunnel's 70th anniversary. The tunnel opened to traffic on November 15th, 1940 and has become a vital part of the region's transportation network, linking Manhattan and Long Island City, Queens.

Inspired by the new Holland Tunnel on the west side, civic and business groups began lobbying in the early 1920s for an East River tunnel to help handle a steady increase in traffic at its already clogged East River bridges. The city's Board of Estimate approved $2 million to design and construct an East River tunnel but plans were put on hold when the stock market crash occurred in 1929.

 

Queens Midtown Tunnel Turns 70In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Public Works Administration loaned the city $58 million to help build the new tunnel. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia created the Queens Midtown Tunnel Authority, which became the New York City Tunnel Authority. That agency merged with the Robert Moses-led Triborough Bridge Authority in 1946 to become the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. Today, the agency retains Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority as its legal name but is known as MTA Bridges and Tunnels and is part of the umbrella of agencies that make up the MTA.

Ground-breaking for the Queens Midtown Tunnel took place Oct.2, 1936 with the push of a ceremonial button by President Roosevelt. Over the next three years, the tunnel's two tubes were excavated using dynamite, drills and four circular cutting shields, about 31-feet in diameter, which were lowered into shafts at each end of the tunnel and hydraulically shoved through the riverbed until they met in the middle.

With each shove, construction workers known as sandhogs, who were paid $11.50 a day, were right behind the shields assembling the cast iron rings that line the tunnel. Once a ring was completed, 28 jacks on the back of the shield shoved the new rings using 5,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. The work was particularly difficult on the Manhattan side where the rock was made of schist, limestone, gneiss and dolomite. Work proceeded at a rate of about 18 feet per week for each shield.

In addition, every bit of excavated material had to be removed via the construction shafts at either end. To compare, the Lincoln Tunnel was driven at 45-feet a day, in part because the material was porous enough and could be pushed to the side instead of removed.

On Nov. 8th, 1939, Mayor LaGuardia pulled a switch to blast the last six feet of rock between the Manhattan and Queens shields in both tubes. A year and one week later, opening ceremonies were held on the Manhattan toll plaza, attended by President Roosevelt, who was the first person to drive through the new tunnel. Other attendees included Mayor LaGuardia, Sen. Robert Wagner, and the tunnel's Chief Engineer Ole Singstad, a well-known tunnel builder who finished building the Holland Tunnel after the death of its original engineer.

All totaled, it took 54 million hours of labor to finish the tunnel, which cost 25 cents to cross when it first opened. In its first full year of operation, 4.4 million vehicles used the tunnel, while in 2009 that figure was 27.7 million.

The tunnel has two tubes. The southbound to Queens tube is 6,272 feet long while the Manhattan-bound tube is 6,414 feet. The tunnel's two ventilation buildings bring 3 million cubic feet of fresh air into the tunnels each minute, and provide a complete air change every 90 seconds.

Seventy-years later, the tunnel appears much the same as it did when it opened in 1940, with the exception of the original brick roadway, which was replaced with asphalt in 1995, and the addition of E-ZPass technology.

A $126 million project completed in 2001, replaced original 1930s materials and resulted in brighter lighting, new ceilings, new tiles along the walls and an entirely new traffic control system, including electronic message signs, and traffic control lights and signals.