May
11

East Side Access tunnel, idle for 30 years, ready to complete the journey

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The lower level of the 63rd St. tunnel will soon burrow its way to Grand Central Terminal. (Jacob Silberberg for The New York Times)

Alaska has its Bridge to Nowhere. New York, unbeknownst to most New Yorkers, has its Tunnel to Nowhere.

Built underneath the East River in the 1970s, the 63rd St. Tunnel is an artifact of the age of misguided optimism in New York City transportation history. At the time, the city administrations, finally crawling out from under the oppressive shadow cast by the Master Builder Robert Moses, wanted to get all of the public works in order that would actually help the city’s residents instead of the suburban drivers.

The 63rd Street Tunnel was supposed to connect Long Island City with Manhattan, but it sat dormant until 1989. The final connection — the F line as it is now with a stop at 63rd and Lexington, Roosevelt Island and 21st St.-Queesbridge to the IND Queens Boulevard Line — didn’t open until 2001. Optimism reigned so supreme in the 1970s that the 63rd St.-Lexington Ave. track patterns were designed to incorporate the Second Ave. Subway which was set for completion by the end of the 1970s. Hopefully, nearly 40 years later, the tracks will finally serve their intended purpose.

Meanwhile, the city built a second tunnel underneath the subway tunnels. This tunnel was originally intended to serve the LIRR into a stop at 48th Street and 3rd Ave. as well as a terminus for a proposed high-sped line to JFK Airport. Well, we all know how those plans turned out, and the second tunnel was abandoned with a dead end sitting in the Manhattan Schist leading literally nowhere.

Now, 30 years later, this second tunnel — the Tunnel to Nowhere — will finally go somewhere. Gone are the plans for a stop at 48th and 3rd and gone, sadly, are the plans for a high-speed raillink to JFK. Instead, we have the East Side Access project. And now, as The Times notes, the pieces are in place for the tunnel and this ambitious commuter rail extension. With a tunnel boring machine en route from Italy, soon work will start in earnest on this project.

Over the next few weeks, the parts will be hauled to Queens and carried through the 63rd Street tunnel under the East River, to a rock cavern about 140 feet below the corner of Second Avenue and 63rd Street in Manhattan. There, the machine will be assembled and, by the end of the year, it will begin chewing through the rock of Manhattan, headed for Grand Central Terminal…

Even today, the tunnel’s lower deck still leads nowhere. Built to carry Long Island Rail Road trains to the East Side of Manhattan, the tunnel’s lower portion was never connected to anything, and it has remained a dead-end anomaly, a testament to high aspirations and low finances.

When it begins its slow trip under Manhattan, grinding through the rock at the rate of about 50 feet a day, the 200-ton machine will travel southwest to Park Avenue and then south to Grand Central.

So there it is, and I love the phrasing in this article. “A testament to high aspirations and low finances,” indeed.

But now things are falling into place for ambitious subway projects. We’ll have boring machines making their way to Grand Central Terminal and others working down Second Avenue. Finally, New York City is getting its much-needed public transportation upgrades. Just don’t pay any attention to the finances as the federal government is picking up just 40 percent of the East Side Access project’s $6.3 billion price tag. That is the worry for another day.

For some great pictures inside the Tunnel to Nowhere, head on over to this post at AMNY’s Tracker blog.



4 Responses to “East Side Access tunnel, idle for 30 years, ready to complete the journey”

  1. You seem to know tons about the NYC subway system, might you know what the tunnel / tracks / station is below the City Hall stop on the R line? It can be seen from the gated and locked staircases on the R platform.

    Originally I thought it was the old green line City Hall station, but I’ve come to learn that the old City Hall stop is on the other side of City Hall Park. This leaves me confused as to what this lower level platform is.

    Any ideas?

  2. You seem to know tons about the NYC subway system, might you know what the tunnel / tracks / station is below the City Hall stop on the R line? It can be seen from the gated and locked staircases on the R platform.

    Ah, yes, another mysterious tunnel under the streets of Manhattan. I know this one well. The lower level of the BMT City Hall stop is a never-completed remnant from 1918. At the time, plans called for local trains on the Broadway line to terminate at City Hall and express trains, using the lower level, to continue on to Brooklyn. But then the BMT opted to use the current Manhattan Bridge configuration for the express tracks, and the lower level was left uncompleted and abandoned. Now, the MTA uses the tracks to store the W trains when they stop running at night.

  3. Thank you for the enlightening.

  4. Todd says:

    That pic looks like it’s from a space movie. I doubt the tunnels are that sexy in real life.

    Speaking of, I really want to go exploring abandoned tunnels! Is that something you’ve ever thought of doing?

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