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The Wild Ride To New York’s Ghost Tunnel

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New York’s Ghost Tunnel, conceived in 1963, in a very different New York, wasn’t supposed to be a secret. In February that year, the Transit Authority proposed a two track subway tunnel under 76th Street. They planned for it going crosstown and connecting with… a new 2nd Avenue Subway. Time and troubles rendered both secret for decades.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island Daily News

By May 2nd, the tunnel’s imagined location had migrated south to 59th Street. And Mayor Robert Wagner wanted it “built with all deliberate speed.”

The planned tunnel meandered some more until it arrived at “around 61st Street.”

The tunnel finally got a goahead from the city Board of Estimate on October 17th. But by then, it was under 64th Street and probably suffering an identity crisis.

New York's Ghost Tunnel looked like this under construction.
The 76th Street Tunnel would connect with the 2nd Avenue Subway… which didn’t open for another 50 years.

It’s unlikely, even as wild a ride as that was, 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?

Months before the 2nd Avenue Subway finally opened on December 31st, 2016, riders on both uptown and downtown 63rd Street F Train platforms peeked through openings in blue-painted, plywood construction barriers. And saw unused platforms, fully complete, along a ghost line, one that’d been there for years but never seen..

Built in the early 1970s, those ghost platforms now serve F and Q Lines. But there’s a lot more to the story.

50% more.

There’s a wild ride, a tale of ambitions for a grand transportation system retarded by 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. He pushed Moses aside.

The city turned to transportation projects benefiting 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 line, 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.

Roosevelt Island Subway Station
30 years old, the Roosevelt Island Station today.

A plan that did not survive

The Roosevelt Island Station opened in 1989. It was the next to last stop. A tunnel finally connected Manhattan and Queens. The only thing left of the big idea was the Q dead-ending a single stop east at 21st Street in Queensbridge.

The 2nd Avenue tunnel remained a good idea. The intersection of new lines at 63rd Street matched ghost platforms with the ghost tunnel.

Half the 63rd Street Station served riders after 1989, but the rest sat empty, along with the ghost tunnel, 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 Ed Koch, then a congressman, traveled up to 102nd Street for the 2nd Avenue subway groundbreaking.

They sold bond and approved plans.

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 saved the day.

By the 1980s, budget constraints idled the project for more than a decade. A few small sections collected dust and rainwater underground.

Someone asked Koch, now mayor, “What should we do with the tunnels?” He suggested, “growing mushrooms in them.”

Hope defied death, though.

In November of 1969, Rockefeller and Lindsay watched in Queensboro Park while symbolic explosions near Welfare (soon to be Roosevelt) Island announced construction of the 63rd Street tunnel.

According to the New York Times, the Transit Authority Band serenaded guests.

Ten years later, Welfare was reborn as Roosevelt Island, but there was still no tunnel.

Wait… The Transit Authority band?

They played Monkey Wrapped His Tail Around The Flag Pole.

It did not help finish the tunnel.

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, also, hobbled the rest of 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.

But 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 used an immersed tube method in construction that didn’t require extra tunneling.

New York’s ghost tunnel, in other words, came readymade.

Trenches dug in the river bed hold 375 concrete sections, prefabricated in Fort Deposit, Maryland, and floated up the Atlantic before sinking into place.

Interesting as this is from an engineering point of view, 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 rides, as originally projected. The lower level, designed for serving an East Side terminal for the Long Island Railroad, fell victim to the 1970s financial crisis.

It was “a dead-end to nowhere,” according to an article in the New York Times, said 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 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 while a second added, “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 2019, but they missed that. By a lot.

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.

Conclusion

Beneath the 63rd Street station, it will part ways with the subway system, turning south toward 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.

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