Home MTA Bridges and Tunnels A once-controversial tunnel turns 60

A once-controversial tunnel turns 60

by Benjamin Kabak

Once upon a time, Robert Moses wanted a bridge, and generally, whatever Moses wanted, Moses got. This bridge was to span the New York Harbor from the battery to Brooklyn. It would have drastically changed the way the waterfront looked and would have done away with Battery Park and Castle Clinton.

In New York City, few outside of the man with the power wanted a bridge. Park protestors agitated for a tunnel, and those who wanted to save the historic Castle Clinton called for one as well. Moses did not listen, and it took an act of the president to turn the bridge into the tunnel. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt objected to the way the tunnel would ruin the view of the harbor, her husband spuriously, that the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge would interfere with national safety because the Brooklyn Navy Yard was upstream from the tunnel.

Even though both the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges were seaward from the navy yard as well, the executive order won the day, and today, we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Today, approximately 44,000 vehicles pass through the 1.7-mile long tunnel on a daily basis. Yet, the origins of the tunnel were arduous.

The NYC Tunnel Authority started construction in October 1940, but the same government that quelled the threat of a bridge ordered a halt to the project in 1942 when the war effort required steel, iron and construction materials. In 1945, Moses’ Triborough Bridge Authority took control of the project, and Moses replaced Ole Signstad with Ralph Smillie as the engineer in charge. Today, the tunnel with its three ventilation plants sees its air recycled every 90 seconds, and what was once a 35-cent toll one way is now $5.50 for those without an E-ZPass.

The tunnel, once featured in Men in Black as the home to the organization tasked with tracking and policing aliens on Earth, isn’t getting a grand celebration for its 60th birthday. The MTA has, however, posted an album of old pictures to commemorate the event. Take a peek:

Cars heading to Manhattan enter the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in the 1950s. (Courtesy of MTA
Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive.)

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Jerrold May 25, 2010 - 7:03 pm

Are you sure that the air in the tunnel is completely replaced only every 90 minutes? That sounds like dangerously infrequent.
Did you perhaps mean to say 9 minutes or 10 minutes?

Jerrold May 25, 2010 - 7:05 pm

I also meant to ask if the $5.50 toll is one-way or for a round trip.
I don’t drive, but I’m just curious.

Building 11 May 26, 2010 - 12:17 am

One way.

Tim May 25, 2010 - 7:51 pm

I believe all MTA bridges and tunnels are one way toll, except for the RFK bridge (gah, I’m using their terminology). I could be wrong though, haven’t been through the BBT in 4 yrs.

Scott E May 25, 2010 - 9:17 pm

Actually, they are all tolled both ways, the exception being the Verrazzano, which is $11.00 one-way. On the Triborough/RFK, Roosevelt Island is considered to be part of Queens, so there is no toll between there and Astoria.

The article (now) says the air is replaced every 90 seconds. If it was wrong before, it’s been corrected.

BrooklynBus May 25, 2010 - 10:13 pm

Don’t you mean Randall’s Island, not Roosevelt Island?

Scott E May 25, 2010 - 10:29 pm

Yes…. as I clicked “Submit”, a voice inside my head said “wait a minute… the Tram doesn’t parallel the Triborough!”. Thanks for the correction.

Jerrold May 25, 2010 - 11:14 pm

Yes, it’s been corrected, and that’s a relief.
Now I can breathe again.

Cap'n Transit May 26, 2010 - 12:35 am

One tube should be a busway.

Anon256 May 26, 2010 - 1:37 am

Given that immediately after emerging from the tunnel buses would have to wait at stoplights, navigate narrow streets, and pick up/drop off passengers on sidewalks, would there really be enough terminal (or through) capacity in Lower Manhattan to make efficient use of a two-lane dedicated busway? Building a grade-separated terminal and approach like the one for the Lincoln Tunnel would be rather difficult in Lower Manhattan.

Boris May 26, 2010 - 12:36 pm

The whole point of the busway would address exactly these concerns – priority signal timing, a wide street for exclusive bus use, and special bus stops that allow passenger pick ups and drop offs without having to pull to the curb. These are all standard BRT features the Manhattan part of the busway should have, except for the non-stop highway parts.

The enormous Battery Parking Garage right outside the tunnel should be repurposed as a downtown bus terminal.

Eric F. May 26, 2010 - 12:54 pm

I’ve often had the same intution regarding that parking garage. Main problem with that spot is that it’s a tad remote from many of the office buildings. Ideally, you’d have a large multi-level garage with underground connections to Water Street, West Street, the Battery tunnel and up to the Holland Tunnel area. A good spot for the terminal could be a spot on Water Street, if a lot of obsolete space could be demolished there. This would also get rid of the immense line of ugly tour buses clogging up the Seaport area.

Boris May 26, 2010 - 1:05 pm

Yeah, it would work better with tourist and long-distance buses than commuter buses, although it can serve as a turnaround/parking station for routes that terminate downtown. Buses coming from Brooklyn should by and large continue to Midtown.

One service we should have that we don’t is point-to-point city buses where now there are no direct routes. For example, Eltingville Transit Center (Staten Island) to JFK. These routes would have fairly constant load rates, compared with commuters, and therefore provide demand for 24/7 bus lanes at all times of the day and week.

Eric F. May 26, 2010 - 1:51 pm

Lower Manhattan sort of has its own transit needs that a bus terminal with below ground connections to through routes could really help assist. A ton of people every day take buses to lower Manhattan jobs, and lower Manhattan now also has a fairly substantial residential population. I would love to see an additional tube to the Holland Tunnel terminating at a new terminal for buses only and open to others for a toll on offpeak hours, if you had similar connections to the bridges via the FDR Drive, you’d effectively have a lower Manhattan through route without requiring any vehcile to enter the local grid.

Anon256 May 27, 2010 - 3:19 pm

Even if you could pry them away from cars, dedicated lanes and signal priority don’t help very much in areas with significant pedestrian traffic. Surface level in New York is and should be for pedestrians first and foremost, and this means you just can’t go very fast. Traffic signals can’t change until the pedestrians already in the intersection have cleared it, and buses would have to constantly slam on the brakes for jaywalkers. You could have a reasonable busway on FDR Drive or _maybe_ West St, but getting from either of these to places people are actually going would still be a challenge.

Turning the Battery Parking Garage into a bus terminal is a good idea though. It should be designed to connect as conveniently as possible with the adjacent 1, R/W and 4/5 stations, so that transit onward to midtown is actually rapid.

Regarding the Brooklyn/Staten Island end: is it better to have an “open” busway (more or less as now), where a variety of infrequent routes run local in mixed traffic on many different streets before merging into the freeway/busway? Or would it be better to have a “closed” busway where a single, frequent trunk route was fed at a few freeway-median stops (e.g. 36th, Hylan) by local buses/subways/SIRT/park-and-ride?

Duke87 May 26, 2010 - 2:08 pm

I wonder what the Federal HighWay Administration would have to say about that. The BBT and its approaches are part of the interstate highway system (I-478), and interstate standards demand at least four lanes of traffic be provided. FHWA may have to grant an exception for one of the tubes to be cannibalized into a busway.

Think twice May 26, 2010 - 3:49 pm

Ironically, almost the same alignment of the BBT and Gowanus was intended for a subway line by John Delaney and Daniel Turner of the Transit Construction Commission in 1920. Reserving half of the BBT’s capacity for transit with dedicated BRT lanes along the Gowanus would definitely right some of the wrongs this city made in its transportation policy.

Jerrold May 26, 2010 - 5:18 pm

This discussion of buses and the Holland Tunnel reminds me of something I’ve occasionally wondered about.
Before 9/11, there were buses operating from the western entrance of 1 World Trade Center (the North Tower) to Newark Airport, presumably using the Holland Tunnel.
(Remember all those airline ticket counters in the lobby of
1 World Trade Center?)
Does anybody know if that bus service was ever put back? If so, where in downtown Manhattan does it operate from now?

Alon Levy May 27, 2010 - 10:40 pm

That’s not necessarily going to work. Manhattan-Brooklyn crossings are not at capacity. City population patterns have changed since 1920; what’s needed today is more crosstown investment (Triboro, cross-Bronx, cross-Upper Manhattan, Flushing-Jamaica), and more lines through and into Queens.

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