Queens-Midtown Tunnel turns 70 after opening in Depression years

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The Queens-Midtown Tunnel, built during the Great Depression during the administrations of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, turned 70 Monday.

The tunnel took 20 years of lobbying and planning and four years of construction.

“From its inception, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel was a key link in the metropolitan region’s transportation network, providing a vital conduit for businesses, daily commuters and families exploring the cultural riches that exist from Manhattan to Queens and Long Island,” MTA Bridges and Tunnels President Jim Ferrara said.

The city Board of Estimate approved $2 million to design and build an East River tunnel, but it was put on hold when the stock market crashed in 1929.

LaGuardia in 1935 created the Queens-Midtown Tunnel Authority with the promise of $58 million in loans available under Roosevelt’s New Deal.

But LaGuardia told the new agency’s three members that “you are starting from scratch with no appropriation and nothing but an idea and a law.”

The groundbreaking for the tunnel took place Oct. 2, 1936, with the push of a button by Roosevelt. Over three years, the tunnel’s two tubes were dug using dynamite, drills and four circular cutting shields — each 31 feet in diameter.

After each forward shove of the cutting shields, sandhogs who were paid $11.50 a day assembled cast iron rings lining the tunnel. Work went ahead at 18 feet per week.

On Nov. 8, 1939, LaGuardia pulled a switch to blast the final 6 feet of rock in the tunnel.

A year and a week later, Roosevelt was the first person to drive through the new tunnel.

The new tunnel cost motorists 25 cents and in its first full year of operation 4.4 million vehicles used it, while in 2009 it served 27.7 million motorists.

Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at timesledgernews@cnglocal.com or phone at 718-260-4536.

Updated 6:27 pm, October 10, 2011
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