The Latest, $55 Billion Solution to Long Island Sound Crossing: Underwater Tunnel

Tasked with solving the Long Island Expressway bottleneck and handed $5 million to do it, a Montreal consulting firm offered its prescription last month: An underwater tunnel, a bridge, or some combination of the two, with a price tag ranging from $8.5 to $55.4 billion.

Two of the proposed termini are Bridgeport and New Haven, as detailed in the firm’s 82-page report released last month. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo referenced the tunnel on Jan. 3 in his State of the State address, the latest in a long string of statesmen to speak audaciously of a conduit spanning the Sound. “It would be underwater,” Cuomo said. “It would be invisible. It would reduce traffic on the impossibly congested Long Island Expressway, and would offer significant potential private investment.”

The Long Island Expressway bottleneck between 58th Street and 48th Street is routinely ranked among the worst traffic blockages in the country. The expressway itself “has become a symbol for a regional highway system ill equipped to cope with the residential and commercial growth around it,” wrote The New York Times in 1988.

The study, conducted by Montreal group WSP, proposes three crossing points from Long Island: Oyster Bay to Rye, N.Y., just south of Greenwich; Kings Park to Bridgeport; and Wading River to New Haven. An 18-mile tunnel or bridge from Oyster Bay to Rye would cost $8.5 to $55.4 billion; a 30-mile equivalent from Kings Park to Bridgeport would cost $13 to $31.2 billion,;and a 32-mile tunnel or bridge from Wading River to New Haven would cost $15.8 to $32 billion.

New York’s Department of Transportation has deemed such an audacious undertaking “feasible,” Cuomo said. Its Connecticut counterpart would likely disagree. On Wednesday, Gov. Dannel Malloy threatened to smother $4.3 billion in badly needed highway repairs if the legislature fails to direct money into the state’s Special Transportation Fund.

“You don’t start talking about putting a sunroof in your house when you’ve got a hole in the roof,” said Jim Cameron, a commuter advocate. The Connecticut Department of Transportation “is busy running around with duct tape and Band-Aids trying to fix what’s already broken,” he added.

A spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Transportation did not respond to questions asking if the state would consider joining such a venture.

The project’s proposed cost is eye-popping in the context of recent bold infrastructure undertakings. The new Tappan Zee Bridge, completed last August, cost about $4 billion. The California Department of Transportation was pilloried for the Oakland Bay Bridge’s price tag, which ballooned to $6.5 billion during the 11 years it took to finish the job.

“Undoubtedly, from a physical point of view it’s possible,” said Norman Garrick, a civil engineering professor at UConn. “But the fiscal and political sides of it, that’s an entirely different story.”

A bridge spanning the Long Island Sound was first proposed by 1938 by New York Sen. Royal Copeland; bids to tunnel across or bridge the Sound tend to surface once every decade or so.

Robert Moses, the mid-20th century bridge czar who remade Long Island as his suburban idyll, had for years tried to build a bridge from Oyster Bay to Rye. Moses considered such a bridge his last great project, but plans ran aground in 1973.

Garrick noted that the last proposal, from a private investor in 2007, gauged the project’s cost at $10 billion. “And now it’s up to $55 billion,” he said. “That’s staggering, when you put it in perspective of Connecticut’s 30-year transportation plan [proposed in 2015], which was budgeted for $100 billion.”

Garrick questioned the proposal’s lack of a rail or mass transit component, which he said would drive up traffic in Connecticut and encourage some rail commuters to take to the roads.

“It would up the competition with rail transportation out of Long Island, because the distance by car would be much shorter,” he said. “It’s really an old-fashioned way of thinking about transportation and economic development.”

Not everyone is so skeptical.

“I think it’d be foolish not to take this very seriously,” said Matthew Nemerson, New Haven’s administrator of economic development. “In terms of what other countries are building, if you had a 5-million-person entity as constricted as Long Island, and you had the open space of the I-91 corridor from New Haven to New London, you’d be thinking strategically this way.”

WSP, which analyzed traffic patterns in 28 tri-state counties, predicted that with a $7.50 toll, 113,000 motorists would cross an Oyster Bay to Rye tunnel or bridge every day, 108,000 would cross from Kings Park to Bridgeport and 69,000 from Wading River to New Haven. With a $20 toll, those totals would sink to 86,000, 88,000 and 55,000, respectively.

Cameron, the commuter advocate, said he’d want to see New York gauge the necessity of a tunnel or bridge by tallying the cars on the Bridgeport-Port Jefferson ferry.

“How many people would actually benefit from a bridge?” he asked. “I think it’s impractical, I don’t think it’s necessary, and it’s clearly unaffordable. I don’t know where New York is coming from, saying let’s build a $50 billion tunnel. Their own subways are in bad need of repair, and have been so for years.”

But Nemerson, the New Haven economic administrator, said that were such a tunnel to be built, 80 years after it was first proposed, it would “change the fundamental identity of Connecticut” — and for the better. It would bring Connecticut businesses just a short drive from Long Island’s army of commuters, he said, opening up Connecticut businesses, restaurants and hospitals to a suburban reservoir of workers and wealth.

“Compared to Long Island, we have a higher standard of living, we’re cheaper and we’re less congested,” he said. “And if Long Island people are working in Connecticut, they might go home at the end of the day and see it’s more expensive and more crowded, and then maybe they move.”

“I don’t think there’s a single person in New Haven who wouldn’t want another 4 million people just 18 minutes away,” Nemerson added. “We suffer in Connecticut, really, of having too little congestion.”

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