Meditations on My N.J. Commute: Putting the Proposed Toll Hikes in Historical Perspective

Meditations on My N.J. Commute: Putting the Proposed Toll Hikes in Historical Perspective

August 10, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Later this month, I’ll celebrate the 10th anniversary of commuting from my suburban Essex County home to my office in New York City. It’s a mere 12 miles as the crow flies from leafy Montclair to the gaping mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel, so in terms of daily miles traversed, I can’t claim much in terms of bragging rights. And though I’m separated by more than a century and an ocean from British Prime Minister and fellow road warrior Benjamin Disraeli, I’m regularly reminded of his observation that “travel teaches toleration.” And he died 100 years before the creation of New Jersey Transit…

The plight of the modern Jersey commuter is top of mind this week as the Port Authority seeks to raise tolls on Hudson River crossings amid the (contrived?) protestations of Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo. But before commenting further on what the future might hold for those that traverse the Hudson between the Garden and Empire States daily, let’s take a brief detour through the history of the commute. Perhaps some historical perspective will ameliorate the pain of those proposed hikes.

Ferry was the only way to cross the Hudson from New Jersey to New York until 1910. This stereoscopic image depicts the North River Ferry circa 1870. NYPL/Robert Dennis Collection.

The early part of this history is, of course, dominated by ferries. For over 350 years, venerable vessels have plied the waters of the Hudson River, carrying Revolutionary War soldiers, livestock, supplies and, ultimately, daily commuters the less-than-one-mile distance from Bergen and Hudson Counties to New York County. As early as 1661, the Netherlands Council granted one William Jansen permission to operate a ferry from Manhattan to Communipaw (now in Jersey City), according to Kenneth Jackson’s “Encyclopedia of New York City.”

The 20th century ushered in new means of traversing the Muhheakantuck (the majestic name the Iroquois gave the Hudson, before the utilitarian Dutch named it the “North River”). In 1906, construction crews working on the North River Tunnel, digging west from Manhattan and east from Weehawken, met 100 feet beneath the river’s midpoint, completing what was, at the time, the longest underwater tunnel in the world. When the North River Tunnel opened for business four years later, the Pennsylvania Railroad for the first time began to carry passengers in its train cars from New Jersey to New York City.

With the advent of mass production of automobiles in the 1920s, commuter traffic expanded beyond rivers and rails to roads, with the construction of the transport trifecta: the Holland Tunnel (opened 1927), the George Washington Bridge (opened 1931) and the Lincoln Tunnel (opened 1937).

At the entrance to the Holland Tunnel in 1985. This river crossing saw over 51,000 commuters on its first day of operation in 1927. Today the number of daily vehicle crossings is nearly twice that. Library of Congress/Jet Lowe.

The Holland Tunnel (named for its chief engineer, Clifford Milburn Holland, and not, as I thought as a child, because it would allow for a quick drive from the swamps of Jersey to the tulip-filled fields of the Netherlands) is a marvel of modern engineering. Not because of its underwater span, but for its ventilation system. At the time of its construction, underwater tunnels were not uncommon, but this was the first long vehicular tunnel. The trick was to create a system to remove the cars’ carbon monoxide emissions, so their passengers could cross the tunnel without asphyxiating.

Thomas Edison (the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” which is now Edison, New Jersey) predicted that it was impossible to ventilate a tunnel with the volume of traffic envisioned for the Holland Tunnel, but designer Ole Singstad (who took over for Holland after the latter died in the midst of the massive construction project) envisioned a pioneering, mechanical system of ventilating the tunnel “transversely.” In all, 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 completely change the air inside the 8,500 foot long tunnel every 90 seconds, allowing for drivers and passengers alike to survive the passage.

On opening day, November 13, 1927, President Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge pressed a golden lever triggering American flags on both sides of the Holland Tunnel to separate. The tunnel was an immediate success. According to the New York Times, over 51,000 vehicles passing through that first day alone, each paying a 50 cent toll. Today, the number of daily vehicles that make the Holland Tunnel trip is roughly twice that. Each vehicle pays tolls that vary with the hour but average $8.00. (For the moment, anyway.)

The George Washington Bridge photographed from the top of New Jersey side tower, facing New York City in 1978. Library of Congress/Jack Boucher.

The same year that the Holland Tunnel opened for business saw groundbreaking on the George Washington Bridge, which bears the name of our first president not merely out of an amorphous patriotic sentiment. In fact, this imposing suspension bridge crosses the Hudson between the sites of Fort Washington (in New York) and Fort Lee (in New Jersey) — two fortified positions used by General Washington and his American forces in his unsuccessful attempt to deter the British occupation of New York City in 1776. Having been thwarted by the forces of General William Howe, Washington evacuated Manhattan by crossing between the two forts (on the river’s surface, not 604 feet above it, where the eponymous bridge now stands).

Described by none other than pioneering designer Le Corbusier as “the most beautiful bridge in the world” for its exposed steel towers and distinctive crisscrossed bracing, the “GWB” was originally planned to have been encased in concrete and granite. Luckily for fans of modern architecture and unadorned steel, the cost constraints of the Great Depression prevented such adornment. Today, with its 14 lanes of travel on two levels, the George Washington Bridge is the world’s busiest motor vehicle bridge, carrying approximately 106 million vehicles per year.

Work began on the Lincoln Tunnel (also designed by Ole Singstad) three years after the opening of the George Washington Bridge. This third New York-New Jersey crossing was funded in part by the New Deal’s Public Works Administration at a cost of some $85 million. The first of the tunnel’s three tubes opened in 1937; the second, delayed by material shortages due to World War II, opened in 1941. The third tunnel became a subject of debate between the city of New York and the Port Authority, who squabbled about which entity should pay for road improvements needed to handle the additional traffic. It opened in 1957.

The Lincoln Tunnel approach and "helix" in New Jersey, circa 1955. Daily commuters who use the tunnel are familiar with its "Express Bus Lane" or "XBL." U.S. Transportation Administration File Photo.

To most 21st-century commuters, the Lincoln Tunnel is know not for its history, but for its “Exclusive Bus Lane” or “XBL,” the one traffic lane in the center tube that, during the morning rush hour, is used only by buses.  Christened in 1970, the XBL carries some 62,000 commuters per day between the hours of 6:15 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. That’s more than the total daily ridership of all of New Jersey Transit’s commuter trains into Penn Station, making it the busiest of any bus lanes in the U.S.

Like most of my commutes between New Jersey and New York, this one has often not gone entirely as planned. (Hence, the earlier reference to Disraeli’s “toleration.”)

Well, history shows us that neither the Great Depression, two World Wars, political in-fighting nor technological challenges can stand in the way of commuters who need to get to work. Regardless of the outcome of  the Aug. 19, 2011 vote on the proposed fare hikes, the commute must go on. Gotta run now though, my train’s about to leave Penn Station.

Bob Feinberg is vice president, general counsel and secretary of WNET. He lives with his family in Montclair, N.J.