Holland Tunnel

The Holland Tunnel is a highway tunnel under the Hudson River connecting the island of Manhattan in New York City with Jersey City, New Jersey at Interstate 78 on the mainland. Unusual for an American public works project, it is not named for a government official, politician, or local hero or person of historical interest, but for its first chief engineer. The tunnel was originally known as the Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel or the Canal Street Tunnel, it was the first of two automobile tunnels built under the river, the other being the Lincoln Tunnel.


Begun in 1920 and completed in 1927, the tunnel is named after Clifford Milburn Holland (1883–1924), Chief Engineer on the project, who died before it was completed. Famed tunnel designer Ole Singstad finished Holland's work. The tunnel is one of the earliest examples of a mechanically ventilated design. 84 fans, in four ventilation buildings, create a floor to ceiling air flow across the roadway at regular intervals, via systems of ducts beneath and above the roadway. The fans can completely change the air inside the tunnel every 90 seconds. A forced ventilation system is essential because of the poisonous carbon monoxide component of automobile exhaust.

The tunnel consists of a pair of tubes, each providing two lanes in a 20-foot (6 m) roadway width and 12.5 feet (3.8 m) of headroom. The north tube is 8,558 feet (2,608 m) from end to end, while the south tube is slightly shorter at 8,371 feet (2,551 m). Both tubes are situated in the bedrock beneath the river, with the lowest point of the roadway approximately 93 feet (28 m) below mean high water.

The amount of traffic at the Holland Tunnel has remained steady in recent years, despite tight restrictions on eastbound traffic in response to the September 11 attacks, including a ban on commercial traffic entering New York City, put in place after an August 2004 threat. The tunnel was used by 34,698,000 vehicles in 2007, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — the bi-state government agency that owns and operates the Holland Tunnel and several other area bridges, tunnels, and bus terminals, also operating airports under a lease agreement with the respective cities each of the airports are owned by. That is slightly less than the 34,729,385 vehicles seen in 2006, but up from the 33,964,000 vehicles in 2005.

The tunnel was designated a National Historic Civil and Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1982 and a National Historic Landmark in 1993.

Boyle Plaza

The approach to the Holland Tunnel in Jersey City begins where the Lower Level of NJ 139 and the Newark Bay Extension meet. On May 6, 1936, the section of what became NJ 139/I-78 between Jersey Avenue and Marin Boulevard was named in memory of John F. Boyle, the former interstate tunnel commissioner. Boyle Plaza is the only segment of I-78 and NJ 139 that has stoplights, as it runs concurrent with 12th Street (the eastbound lanes) and 14th Street (the westbound lanes) in Jersey City.

The nine-lane toll plaza is equipped with E-ZPass (first made available in October 1997). As of 2008, the cash toll for passage from New Jersey to New York is $8 for cars and $7 for motorcycles (there is no toll going to New Jersey). Vehicles equipped with an E-ZPass receive a discount during off-peak hours ($6 for cars, $5 for motorcycles).


Passage across the lower Hudson River was only by ferry for centuries. The first tunnels to be bored below the Hudson River were the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad's uptown and downtown tunnels, constructed in the first decade of the 20th century to link the major railroad stations in New Jersey with Manhattan Island. The Pennsylvania Railroad's twin tunnels, constructed to serve the new Pennsylvania Station, soon followed. Once tunneling had been shown to be feasible, increasing automobile traffic led to interest in a roadway crossing the river as well.

The concept for what would become the Holland Tunnel was developed in 1906 by a joint commission between New York and New Jersey. The commission initially considered building a bridge for cost reasons, but this plan was abandoned in favor of a tunnel in 1913 when it was determined that the cost of land for accessways to a suitably raised bridge would be prohibitive (a height of 200 feet (60 m) was considered the minimum necessary to avoid interfering with shipping.)

Over the next several years, a number of design proposals were evaluated for the new tunnel. The first two called for a single tube containing two levels of traffic. One, authored by engineer George Goethals specified that traffic on each level would travel in a different direction. The other, by the firm Jacobs and Davies, called for a slightly different tube diameter, with an "express" level and a level for slower traffic. Both designs were eventually passed over in favor of a new type of design proposed by engineer Clifford Milburn Holland, in which two separate tubes would each contain two lanes both going in the same direction. Holland's proposal was adopted, and he was named Chief Engineer of the project. Promotional materials compared the diameter and capacity of the proposed tunnel with the smaller-diameter railroad tunnels.

In 1920 the New Jersey Interstate Bridge and Tunnel Commission and the New York State Bridge and Tunnel Commission appropriated funds for what was then referred to as the "Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel Project". Construction began on March 31, 1922, with a crew of workers starting digging at the corner of Canal Street and West Street. On October 27, 1924, the day before the two halves of the tunnel were scheduled to be linked, 41-year-old Holland died of a heart attack in a sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan, attributed by individuals cited in The New York Times to the stress he endured overseeing the tunnel's construction. "Holing through" ceremonies scheduled for that day, in which President Calvin Coolidge would have remotely set off an explosion to connect the two sides of the tunnel, were canceled out of respect for Holland's death. The project was renamed the Holland Tunnel in memory of its first chief engineer by the New York State Bridge and Tunnel Commission and the New Jersey Interstate Bridge and Tunnel Commission on November 12, 1924. Holland was succeeded by Milton H. Freeman, who died of pneumonia in March 1925, after several months heading the job. After Freeman's death, the position was occupied by Ole Singstad, who oversaw the completion of the tunnel and designed its pioneering ventilation system.


Tunnel construction required workers to spend large amounts of time in the caisson under high pressure of up to 47½ pounds per square inch, which was thought to be necessary to prevent river water from entering prior to completion of the tubes. "Sandhogs", as they were termed, entered the tunnel through a series of airlocks, and could only remain inside of the tunnel for a designated time period. On exiting the tunnel, the workers had to undergo controlled decompression to avoid the bends, a condition in which nitrogen bubbles form in the blood from rapid decompression. Fortunately, no workers died as a result of decompression sickness: the work involved "756,000 decompressions of men coming out of the compressed air workings," which resulted in 528 cases of the bends, none fatal.

Ventilation system

The most significant design aspect of the Holland Tunnel is its pioneering ventilation system. At the time of its construction, underwater tunnels were a well-established part of civil engineering, but no long vehicular tunnel had been built: the technical hurdle was the ventilation required to evacuate the carbon monoxide emissions, which would otherwise asphyxiate the drivers.

Thomas Edison had contended it was impossible to ventilate a tunnel with the volume of traffic envisioned for the Holland Tunnel. Previously, tunnels had been ventilated longitudinally. Engineer Ole Singstad pioneered a system of ventilating the tunnel transversely.

Working with the Yale University and United States Bureau of Mines, Singstad built a test tunnel in the bureau's experimental mine at Bruceton, Pennsylvania, over 400 feet (120 m) long — where cars were lined up with engines running. Volunteer students were supervised as they breathed the exhaust in order to confirm air flows and tolerable carbon-monoxide levels by simulating different traffic conditions, including backups. Singstad concluded that a conventional, longitudinal ventilation system would have to be pressurized to an air flow rate of 27 metres per second (89 ft/s) on along the tunnel.

Singstad confirmed the feasibility of a tri-level tunnel with the large middle section accommodating vehicles and two plenums, a lower and upper plenum each respectively supplying fresh air and exhausting fumes at regular intervals — solving the ventilation problem.

On opening day the average carbon monoxide content in both tunnels was .69 part per 10,000 parts of air. The highest was 1.60 parts per 10,000. The permissible standard was 4 parts per 10,000 parts of air. The public and the press proclaimed air conditions were actually better in the tube than in some streets of New York City.


Completion of the tunnel took nearly seven years, and claimed the lives of fourteen workers. The tunnel opened on November 13, 1927, with President Coolidge pressing a golden lever that triggered American flags on both sides of the tunnel to separate. Vehicles were allowed to pass through the tunnel at one minute after midnight, with the widows of Chief Engineers Holland and Freeman in the second toll-paying vehicle. The tunnel was an immediate success. On its first day of operation, 51,694 vehicles passed through, paying a 50 cent toll ($6.19 in 2009 dollars) per car (25 cents for a motorcycle and truck tolls of up to two dollars), which was intended to defray the tunnel's $48 million price tag. In 1930 control but not real property title of the tunnel was passed to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which continues to operate it today. Excluding the initial $48 million in construction, the Port Authority notes $536,600,000 of cumulative capital investment as of December 31, 2005.

Horse-drawn vehicles have always been banned from the tunnel. A few months before the tunnel's opening, there were suggestions that pedestrians would be allowed to cross the tunnel if they paid a toll described as "not encouraging", but no further mention of this was ever made.

Recent changes

Between 2003 and 2006 the fire protection system in both tunnels was modernized. Temporary fire extinguishers were located in alcoves along the tunnel walls while the water supply was turned off.

Accidents and terrorism

In 1949, a fire aboard a chemical truck caused enormous damage to the south tube of the tunnel. Although no one was killed, the fire resulted in 66 injuries and nearly $600,000 worth of damage to the structure. As a result, the Port Authority adopted a strict series of rules on the transportation of hazardous materials within the tunnel.

Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the tunnel remained closed to all but emergency traffic for nearly a month. When it reopened on October 15, 2001, strict new regulations were enacted banning single-occupant vehicles and trucks from entering the tunnel. Single occupant vehicles were prohibited in the tunnel on weekday mornings between 6:00 am and 10:00 am until November 17, 2003, when the restrictions were lifted. Commercial vehicles in classes 1, 2 and 3 (two and three-axle single-unit trucks) are permitted to travel in both directions of the tunnel at all times. The ban on tractor-trailers and larger trucks in classes 4, 5 and 6 (four, five and six-axle trucks) remains in effect in both directions at all times. The ban on trailers and towed vehicles remains in effect in both directions at all times.

Cell phone service was turned off after a series of terrorist bombings occurred in London on July 7, 2005, but was reinstated a few days later.

On July 7, 2006, a plot to detonate explosives in the tunnels of the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (initially said to be a plot to bomb the Holland Tunnel) was uncovered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In a later update of the source, the plot was clarified to be aimed not at the Holland Tunnel but at the PATH rail system between New York and New Jersey.

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