The tunnel opened in 1927 as the first of two vehicular tunnels under the Hudson River, with the Lincoln Tunnel opening in 1937. It was originally known as the Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel or the Canal Street Tunnel. It was renamed the Holland Tunnel in memory of Clifford Milburn Holland, the chief engineer, after his sudden death in October 27, 1924, before the tunnel was opened. The innovative ventilation system was designed by Ole Singstad, who oversaw completion of the tunnel's construction.
Begun in 1920 and completed in 1927, the tunnel is named after Clifford Milburn Holland, chief engineer on the project, who died before it was completed. Tunnel designer Ole Singstad finished Holland's work. The tunnel was the first mechanically ventilated underwater vehicular tunnel in the world. Eighty-four 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, which constituted a far greater percentage of exhaust gases before catalytic converters became prevalent.
The tunnel consists of a pair of tubes, each providing two lanes in a 20-foot (6.1 m) roadway width with 12.5 feet (3.81 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 silt beneath the river, with the lowest point of the roadway being about 93 feet (28.3 m) below mean high water.
The amount of traffic going through the Holland Tunnel has remained steady 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. That is slightly less than the 34,729,385 vehicles seen in 2006, but up from the 33,964,000 vehicles in 2005.
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).
Originally used as the toll plazas for New Jersey-bound traffic, the small triangular patches of land at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel entrance had become fenced off by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In 2013, the Hudson Square Connection, the business improvement district for the area, collaborated with the Port Authority to open Freeman Plaza West to the public. Bounded by Hudson, Broome, and Watts Streets, Freeman Plaza West is named after Milton Freeman, the engineer who took over the Holland Tunnel project after the death of Clifford Milburn Holland. It features umbrellas, bistro tables and chairs, and tree plantings.
In 2014, Freeman Plaza East and Freeman Plaza North were opened on Varick and Broome Streets, containing chaise lounge chairs, bistro tables, and umbrellas. In 2016, the Hudson Square Connection added solar powered charging stations to both plazas, and introduced a summer lunchtime music series, called live@lunch.
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 as a height of 200 ft (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 at the 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 Harvey 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 47.5 pounds per square inch (328 kPa), 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. 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. Completion of the tunnel took nearly seven years and claimed the lives of 14 workers.
One of four towers, the New York Land Ventilation Building in 1985
Hudson River ventilation tower in Jersey City
The most significant design aspect of the Holland Tunnel is its 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.
There are four ventilation towers serving the tunnel, designed by Norwegian architect Erling Owre.
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 Yale University and the United States Bureau of Mines, Singstad built a test tunnel in the bureau's experimental mine at Bruceton, Pennsylvania, over 400 feet (122 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 cubic meters per second (953 cu ft/s) 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 0.69 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 better in the tube than in some streets of New York City.
The tunnel opened at 4:55 pm on November 13, 1927, with President Coolidge ceremonially opening the tunnel from his yacht by turning the same key that had "opened" the Panama Canal in 1915, Time magazine called it "the golden lever of the Presidential telegraphic instrument"—which rang a giant brass bell at the tunnel's entrances 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 ($7.04 in 2017) per car, with tolls ranging from 25 cents for a motorcycle to two dollars for large trucks, which was intended to defray the tunnel's $48 million price tag ($546 million in 2016). Horsedrawn 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 the idea was never seriously considered.
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. Between the 1927 opening and 2005, an additional $536 million has been invested in maintaining the tunnel.
In 1955 a very narrow one-man miniature electric car was developed and installed so policemen could patrol the full length of the tunnel from the catwalk on the side of the tunnel instead of having to walk it. By use of a swivel seat the policemen could drive the car in either direction.
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.
The Holland Tunnel was closed on October 29, 2012 as Hurricane Sandy approached. The tunnel, like many other New York City tunnels, was flooded by the high storm surge. It remained closed for several days, opening for buses only on November 2 and to all traffic on November 7.
In 1949, a fire aboard a chemical truck caused enormous damage to the south tube of the tunnel. The fire resulted in 69 injuries and nearly $600,000 worth of damage to the structure. In addition, two first responders, a FDNY battalion chief and a Port Authority patrolman, died as a result of injuries sustained in fighting the fire.
The tunnel is considered by some high ranking government officials to be one of the most high-risk terrorist target sites in the United States. Other such sites in New Jersey include the PATH station at Exchange Place, which is also in Jersey City; the Lincoln Tunnel, which connects nearby Weehawken to Manhattan; and the Port of Newark in Elizabeth.
Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the tunnel remained closed to all but emergency traffic for over a month. When it reopened on October 15, 2001, strict new regulations were enacted banning single-occupancy 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.
As of December 6, 2015[update], the cash tolls going from New Jersey to New York are $15 for cars and motorcycles; there is no toll for passenger vehicles going from New York to New Jersey. E-ZPass users are charged $10.50 for cars and $9.50 for motorcycles during off-peak hours, and $12.50 for cars and $11.50 for motorcycles during peak hours.
^ ab"Holland Tunnel". ASCE Metropolitan Section. Retrieved November 12, 2016. Resolved, that the Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel ... is hereby dedicated to the memory of Clifford Milburn Holland, and that the said Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel is hereby designated and named as The Holland Tunnel
^* "Studies and Methods Adopted for Ventilating the Holland Vehicular Tunnels". Engineering News-Record. 98. June 9, 1927. pp. 934–939.
"Ventilating the Holland Vehicular Tunnel". Heating and Ventilating Magazine. 23 (79). August 1926.
Singstad, Ole. "Ventilation of Vehicular Tunnels". Proceedings of the World Engineering Congress. 9. pp. 381–399.
Davis, A. C. (October 1930). "Development of the ventilation system of the Holland Tunnel". Heating, Piping and Air Conditioning. 2. pp. 866–874.
Fieldner, A.C.; Henderson, Y.; Paul, J.W.; others (February 1927). "Ventilation of vehicular tunnels (Report of U.S. Bureau of Mines to New York State Bridge and Tunnel Commission and New Jersey State Bridge and Tunnel Commission)". American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers.