Our Secret's A Legacy From Another Century

About the Ghost Tunnel Under Roosevelt Island

Updated 25 weeks ago David Stone
Work on the lower level "ghost" tunnel under 63rd Street and Roosevelt Island.
Work on the lower level "ghost" tunnel under 63rd Street and Roosevelt Island.
Photo source: Metropolitan Transit Authority, Creative Commons 2.0 Sharealike

In 1963, it was a different New York, unaware it was about to be convulsed in civil and financial crises. In February, the Transit Authority proposed a two track subway tunnel under 76th Street to be built in conjunction with the new 2nd Avenue subway line. By May 2nd, it’s location migrated southward to 59th Street, and by the time Mayor Robert Wagner weighed on the 24th of the month, declaring it should “be built with all deliberate speed,” the tunnel meandered even farther to “around 61st Street.”

Maybe this foreshadowed the multiple frustrations soon to beset the tunnel finally approved by the city Board of Estimate on October 17th – 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.

in the months before the 2nd Avenue Subway Line opened, rider waiting on either 63rd Street platform were able to peek through openings in the blue-painted construction barriers and see unused platforms.

Built in the early 1970s, these platforms now serve passengers where F and Q Lines intersect. The reason is a knotted tale of visionary ambitions for a grand transportation system and financial limitations that obstructed fulfillment.

About the Ghost Tunnel Under Roosevelt Island
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In the 1960s, the power of New York’s master highway builder Robert Moses shrunk as he spared with Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who did not look kindly on the mindset Moses inspired for ripping up neighborhoods and replacing parks with parking lots. With Moses out of the way, the city turned to transportation projects that benefited residents, not those helping rush them away to Long Island’s burgeoning suburbs.

Mayor Wagner and transit planners envisioned growing the subway system’s reach with extensions of BMT 6th Avenue and Broadway lines both curling east for an intersection at 63rd Street. From there, the F train 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 severe overcrowding on existing trains.

Sketch for 63rd Street Double Tunnel.
Sketch for 63rd Street Double Tunnel.
Source: Roosevelt Island 360

Long time Roosevelt Island residents will recall that, by 1989 when our station finally opened, the only thing left of that big idea was the Q coming through to dead end at 21st Street in Queens, not up the 2nd Avenue Line since it hadn’t been built. What had been finished was the intersection of new lines at 63rd Street.

Part of the 63rd Street station has been in continuous use since 1989, but the rest has been empty and idle for decades. Few passengers realize that, for all those years, parallel platforms have remained just behind the walls on each of the in use platforms. These ghost platforms were built so that Q riders could transfer before their trains turned north to join the T as the 2nd Avenue subway was then named.

According to a report in New York magazine, with bonds passed and plans approved in 1972, then Mayor John Lindsay, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and a young congressman, Ed Koch, traveled up to 102nd Street for the 2nd Avenue subway groundbreaking.

Making reference to a line that had first been proposed in the 1920s, 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.”

Then, prophetically, all three men failed to crack the pavement with their axes. Power equipment had to be brought in.

By the 1980s, after the project had been idled by budget constraints for more than a decade, with only a few small sections completed, Koch – by now mayor – was asked, “What should we do with the tunnels?” Koch suggested, “growing mushrooms in them.”

All was not lost, though, because in November of 1969, Rockefeller and Lindsay had jointly stood by in Queensboro Park while symbolic explosions near “Welfare Island” announced the beginning of construction of the 63rd Street tunnel.

According to the New York Times, the ceremony was serenaded by the Transit Authority Band -- yes, they were lighthearted enough in those days to have a band -- playing The Monkey Wrapped His Tail Around The Flag Pole.

Musical tastes notwithstanding, the project was already “holed through” by 1972, ahead of the financial crises under Mayor Abe Beame that crushed the 2nd Avenue subway.

That crisis was exacerbated 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.

East Side Access Project access on Roosevelt Island.
East Side Access Project access on Roosevelt Island.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

The 63rd Street tunnel that provides Roosevelt Island with subway service as it rolls between Queens and Manhattan is unique in that 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.

In the dust up that followed, Richard Ravitch, then MTA chairman, acknowledged that work had continued on the lower tunnel for five years after officials knew it would never be used, according to the Times. 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.

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