About New York City’s Ghost Tunnel
Over 50 Years Planning, Still Incomplete
New York’s Ghost Tunnel was conceived in 1963. It was a different New York, about to be convulsed in civil and financial crises. In February, the Transit Authority proposed a two track subway tunnel under 76th Street. It would connect with the new 2nd Avenue Subway.
By May 2nd, it’s location migrated southward to 59th Street. On the 24th, Mayor Robert Wagner said it should “be built with all deliberate speed.”
The planned tunnel meandered even farther to “around 61st Street.”
The tunnel finally passed by the city Board of Estimate on October 17th. Now, it was under 64th Street.
It’s unlikely, even so, that anyone predicted that the city’s grand plans would result in a ghost tunnel under Roosevelt Island.
So, what became of New York’s Ghost Tunnel?
Before the 2nd Avenue Subway opened on December 31st, 2016, riders on both uptown and downtown 63rd Street platforms peeked through openings in the blue-painted construction barriers. Unused platforms, fully built, were exposed.
Built in the early 1970s, the platforms now serve F and Q Lines. There is a knotted tale of ambitions for a grand transportation system coupled with financial limitations that kept it from happening.
In the 1960s, the power of New York’s master highway builder Robert Moses shrunk as he spared with Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Rocky disliked Moses’s passion for ripping up neighborhoods and replacing parks with parking lots, Moses was pushed aside.
The city turned to transportation projects that benefit residents, not those facilitating a rush to Long Island suburbs.
Mayor Wagner and transit planners wanted to grow the subway system by extending of BMT 6th Avenue, which terminated at 57th Street, and Broadway lines. Both would curl east and intersect at 63rd Street.
The 6th Avenue F would continue into Queens, and a Q train would run north to join the long discussed 2nd Avenue IND line. Both extensions aimed to ease overcrowding on existing trains.
A plan that did not survive
The Roosevelt Island Station opened in 1989. It was the first stop. The tunnel finally connected Manhattan and Queens. The only thing left of the big idea was Q dead-ending a single stop east at 21st Street in Queensbridge.
No 2nd Avenue tunnel was built. The intersection of new lines at 63rd Street match ghost platforms with the ghost tunnel.
Half the 63rd Street Station served riders after 1989, but the rest sat empty, idle for decades.
Parallel platforms collected dust behind the walls of the active platforms.
Groundbreaking for New York’s Ghost Tunnel
According to New York magazine, in 1972, Mayor John Lindsay, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and a young congressman, Ed Koch, traveled up to 102nd Street for the 2nd Avenue subway groundbreaking.
Bonds were sold and plans approved.
Lindsay joked, “Some people suggested a transit facility along Second Avenue. And it was such a good idea that I decided to follow up on it immediately.”
Fifty years had passed
All three failed to crack the pavement with their axes. Power equipment was brought in.
By the 1980s, the project was idled by budget constraints for more than a decade. Only a few small sections were finished.
Koch, now mayor, was asked, “What should we do with the tunnels?” He suggested, “growing mushrooms in them.”
All was not lost, though. In November of 1969, Rockefeller and Lindsay stood by in Queensboro Park while symbolic explosions near Welfare Island announced construction of the 63rd Street tunnel.
Ten years later, Welfare was reborn as Roosevelt Island, but there was still no tunnel.
According to the New York Times, the Transit Authority Band serenaded guests.
The Transit Authority band?
They played Monkey Wrapped His Tail Around The Flag Pole.
It did not help.
New York’s Ghost Tunnel Smacks Into the Financial Crisis
Musical tastes notwithstanding, the project was already “holed through” by 1972. Then, the financial crises under Mayor Abe Beame that crushed the 2nd Avenue subway hobbled all City planning.
That crisis deepened when President Gerald Ford refused federal aid to the city in 1975. (A memorable Daily News headline: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD helped defeat Ford’s reelection bid.)
The city survived and thrived, but mass transit was on life support for years to come.
What did get done matters because, today, more than thirty years later, the city drew closer to completing the 1960s plan after all.
The 63rd Street tunnel that provides Roosevelt Island and Queens with subway service as it rolls under the East River is unique. The section under the East River was constructed using an immersed tube method without any tunneling.
Trenches were dug in the river bed and 375 concrete sections, prefabricated in Fort Deposit, Maryland, were floated up the Atlantic and sunk into place.
Interesting as this is from an engineering point of view (It won a number of awards.), it’s more so because these are double tunnels with upper and lower sections, another leftover from Mayor Wagner’s grand vision.
The upper section is the one on which the F train travels, as originally projected. The lower level was designed to serve an East Side terminal for the Long Island Railroad that fell victim to the 1970s financial crisis.
It was dubbed “a dead-end to nowhere,” according to an article in the New York Times, by city council president and MTA board member Carol Bellamy in 1980.
There were even discussions about using the tunnel for a JFK express train, also abandoned.
Attacking the Issue by Being Real
In the dust up that followed, MTA chairman Richard Ravitch acknowledged that work had continued on the lower tunnel for five years after officials knew it would never be used. He said that to stop the work “was impossible or so costly as to make it impractical.”
Hence, a ghost tunnel, neither coming from or going anywhere, just leaking water beneath the East River.
Bellamy said she was “appalled.”
Even workers assigned to the project were indulging in dark humor, referring to the tunnel as the city’s most expensive wine cellar and meat locker, according to the Times article by David A. Andelman.
“Over there we’re going to put the California reds,” one was quoted as saying while a second noted, “We’re going to hang the meat over there.”
But prophecies of a never to be used ghost tunnel are turning out to be wrong.
Listening closely, Roosevelt Islanders can sometimes hear rumblings in the ghost tunnel beneath the subway platform as it comes to life as part of the LIRR’s first expansion in 100 years.
Known in planning as “East Side Access,” a new line will carry revenue generating passengers from Long Island to Grand Central Station — eventually.
The original target was this year, 2019, but it’s not close.
For now, it’s used for transporting equipment and materials between the construction in Manhattan and the railroad’s Sunnyside yards.
Neither a ghost nor a “tunnel to nowhere,” as Andelman called it in his 1980 article, the lower level beneath Roosevelt Island will allow riders to speed more quickly than ever into and out of Midtown.
Beneath the 63rd Street station, it will part ways with the subway system, turning south for Grand Central.
The original 63rd Street tunnel and 2nd Avenue Subway project partially completed, just under a century after being imagined, Q trains now run along the underutilized tracks of the only line that passes under Central Park before heading up the East Side.
Hopes from the 1960s may someday be realized as bad dreams from the 1970s are put to rest.
Ghost platforms and dead-ends to nowhere will be reborn in an improved mass transit system that makes commuting faster from Long Island and gives cramped passengers on the East Side breathing room they’ve waited nearly a century to appreciate.
And for those of us on Roosevelt Island, new options opened as crowding worsened. But don’t lose hope. East Siders waited a hundred years for relief. Just sixty years from now, the MTA may have a clue about helping us.