Every year, 40 million vehicles use the Lincoln Tunnel to travel between New Jersey and New York City, where the tunnel empties onto West 39th Street. To get into the city, the vast majority of drivers use a single entry point called the helix. This 4,000-ft, sloping roadway loop connects traffic from Route 495 to the tunnel entrance. When congestion clogs the city-bound lanes, one can at least enjoy an expansive view to the east of the Hudson River and Manhattan skyline.
Starting this August, drivers will start taking new routes as the 74-year-old helix begins a two-year makeover. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has commissioned an $88 million repair job to one of the most crucial transportation links in the tri-state area. Nicknamed the “Helix Fix“, this project will include repaving the road, putting in new steel beams, and upgrading the concrete median barrier with steel caps, according to the Request to Qualify (RTQ) the Port Authority issued to interested contractors in January 2011.
“There have been constant repair projects over the years,” said Steve Coleman, spokesperson for the Port Authority, to the Hudson Reporter in February, “but none as extensive at this.”
All the work on the helix will take place during overnight hours — from 10:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. on most days — when traffic will be detoured to local roads like the South Marginal Highway in Weehawken, which runs parallel to Route 495.
It’s going to be an inconvenience to all us drivers, to all the commuters. But there’s nothing we can do, the work has to be done.
When the helix opened in 1938, a year after the opening of the Lincoln Tunnel, it was hailed as an engineering marvel. The Hudson Dispatch called it “one of the most praiseworthy masterpieces of architecture in the United States.” Drivers no longer had to join local traffic in downtown Weehawken on their way to and from the Lincoln Tunnel. The massive helix provided three traffic lanes in each direction, connecting to Weehawken’s Pleasant Avenue. In 1939, a depressed express highway (now Route 495) opened, connecting the helix through Union City to Interstate Routes 1 and 3.
The Helix Fix is one of many projects funded by a succession of toll hikes that began in 2011, which many thought were unfairly put in place. The $25.1 billion, ten-year capital plan approved last August by Governor Christie, Governor Cuomo and the Port Authority also included repair projects on the George Washington Bridge and replacing the Goethals Bridge.
For drivers, this meant a $1.50 fare increase for E-ZPass subscribers on Port Authority bridges and tunnels as of September 2011, with an extra $2 fee for cars paying with cash, according to NJ Today. Toll prices for cars will continue to rise steadily by 75 cents over the next couple of years.
The Port Authority has been criticized in the past for not reaching out for public opinion, such as last year’s toll increase. As a result, it decided to set up an outreach campaign to address the traffic and construction complaints, and encourage drivers to use detour routes and public transportation. Those detour routes are local Weehawken streets, which means residents will have to deal with an unprecedented increase in traffic. On March 21 and June 2, Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner went door to door with city officials, passing out informational pamphlets and alerting residents living near the highway about the construction project.
“I’m pretty sure people have never had Port Authority officials knocking on their doors before,” said Baroni, to The Record earlier this year. The outreach includes a website with information about detours, hours of operation, and a complaint hotline, as well as Twitter account that will be updated as the project progresses. According to the Port Authority website, the Helix Fix’s projected economic impact is 470 job-years, $27 million in wages, and $123 million in economic activity.
Click on images for “Lincoln Tunnel Helix Through the Years” slideshow:
The repairs will have no immediate effect, so for many commuters the project just means a bigger headache.
“It’s going to be an inconvenience to all us drivers, to all the commuters,” said Brenda Jones, a Trans-Bridge Lines bus driver, “It bothers me now, trying to get [commuters] here on time with all the congestion. I don’t even take my own personal vehicle here. But there’s nothing we can do, the work has to be done.”
“As a small business owner based out of New Jersey, we use the Lincoln Tunnel quite frequently — and unfortunately, we often use the tunnel during hours when the helix will be closed,” said Andrew Schrage, co-founder of a finance website , who travels to the city for conference meetings. “I know that rather than using side streets to access the Lincoln Tunnel, we’ll be using other methods entirely.”
He won’t be alone in seeking alternative routes to Manhattan. With the helix closed off, the Port Authority foresees congestion on other Hudson River crossings, such as the Holland Tunnel or the George Washington Bridge, the latter of which can be prone to backups caused by a construction project at the Alexander Hamilton Bridge, which connects Manhattan with the Bronx.
Work on the eastbound side to the city starts this August and is scheduled to go on until 2013. Work on the westbound side into New Jersey will start in 2013 and is expected to be finished in 2014.
“MetroFocus: Transforming Transportation” premieres on Tuesday, July 24 at 10:30 p.m. on WLIW21; Wednesday, July 25 at 10:30 p.m. on NJTV; and Thursday, July 26 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.