Home MTA Bridges and Tunnels The Queens-Midtown Tunnel turns 70

The Queens-Midtown Tunnel turns 70

by Benjamin Kabak

Groundbreaking ceremonies with throng of flag-waving well-wishers along Borden Avenue in Astoria, Queens. Oct. 2, 1936. Courtesy of MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive

An unidentified woman standing at the Queens Midtown Tunnel sign at the corner of Park Avenue and East 36th Street. Photographer unknown. 1940. Courtesy of MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive

On this day in 1940: The Queens-Midtown Tunnel opened. Originally planned for the mid-1920s but shelved amidst the Great Depression, the tunnel came to life thanks to a loan from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the tune of $58 million in 1935. To honor the tunnel, MTA Bridges and Tunnels sent out the pictures you see in the post and provided some history:

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.

In 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.

Sandhogs tighten a bolt in a tunnel-lining ring. Six cylindrical jacks on the back of a shield are visible behind the men. Photographer: Michael Bobco for Somach Photo Service. Feb. 26, 1939. Courtesy of MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive

Sandhogs, making $11.50 a day and digging out 18 feet per week, were responsible for the dangerous construction job. As the shields dug forward, the sandhogs had to assemble the cast iron rings that line the tunnel. It ultimately took 54 million manhours to finish the tunnel, and it carried with a 25-cent toll in 1940. That equates to $3.90 in 2010 dollars, but today’s toll has outpaced that. It now costs $5.50 in cash or a $4.57 E-ZPass payment to pass through the tunnel.

In its first full year, 4.4 million cars passed through the two-tube tunnel while last year, 27.7 million vehicles did the same. The 6272-southern tube and 6414-foot Manhattan-bound tube underwent a $126 million renovation completed in 2001 that saw the original 1930s brick replaced by asphalt, among other upgrades. Today, the tunnel entrance is a subtle part of Murray Hill while the traffic is anything but. Now a part of I-495, the tunnel’s most famous moment probably came in Men in Black in 1997 as Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones rode along the roof of the tunnel en route to Queens.

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Emilio November 15, 2010 - 6:58 pm

OK, stupid question, but if the tunnel opened on November 15, 1940, this comparison doesn’t make sense:

In 1940, 4.4 million cars passed through the two-tube tunnel while last year, 27.7 million vehicles did the same.

Shouldn’t we compare the first full year in service (i.e., 1941) to the most recent figures?

Benjamin Kabak November 15, 2010 - 7:02 pm

Not a stupid question, but rather a stupid typo on my part. That should say, “In its first full year of service…”

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