By Philip Newman
It’s the 75th birthday of the Queens Midtown tunnel, which served motorists from its dedication by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 until floodwaters from Superstorm Sandy temporarily shut it down three years ago.
“The Queens Midtown tunnel operated for more than 70 years without flooding,” said MTA Bridges and Tunnels Deputy Chief Engineer Romul DeSantis. “The damage from Sandy was unprecedented, but our restoration and flood mitigation work will make the tunnel better and stronger than ever.”
The Queens Midtown tunnel opened Nov. 15, 1940, following two decades of lobbying, design and planning and four years of labor. Plans were put on hold during the Great Depression and politics required the creation of a tunnel agency in order for the project to get federal money as part of the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal.
“You are starting from scratch with no appropriation and nothing but an idea and a law,” Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia told the three-member tunnel authority.
Roosevelt broke ground for the tunnel on Oct. 2, 1936 by pushing a ceremonial button.
In the following three years the two tubes were carved 10 stories beneath the East River through Manhattan schist, limestone, gneiss and dolomite.
Workers used dynamite, drills and circular cutting shields hydraulically pushed through the riverbed until they met in the middle.
Work proceeded at the rate of 18 feet per week for each cutting shield, much more slowly than the 45 feet daily at the Lincoln Tunnel where more porous material below the Hudson River bed could be shoved aside rather than removed.
Until Superstorm Sandy, the Queens Midtown tunnel had required no major rehabilitation work other than upgrades to add E-Zpass technology, signs, lights and signals. The tunnel’s original brick roadbed was replaced with more durable asphalt in 1995.
About 40 percent of the tunnel was submerged by Sandy and saltwater damaged critical components such as the lighting system, traffic lights and signals.
The tunnel was partially reopened to buses within a week of the storm and full vehicle access 10 days later.
Work to repair lingering damage from the storm is still going on. The MTA Bridges and Tunnels agency has awarded a four-year, $236-million contract for repairs and other capital improvement work at the tunnel. The work will be paid for partly with FEMA grant money and the rest through the MTA capital program.
The toll on the Queens Midtown tunnel was originally 25 cents. Construction sandhogs were paid $11.50 a day.
Since 1940, more than 1.6 billion trips have been made through the tunnel.
The toll today is $8.