Mailing ListForum
City Places for City People
The "Tappan Tunnel"

by John H. Vargo

Every crisis needs a single person so determined, knowledgeable and personable that he or she carries the day. Such a person is Alexander Saunders of Garrison, New York, in regard to his passion, a tunnel under the Hudson River, his alternative to the recent proposal by the New York Thruway Authority to rebuild the Tappan Zee Bridge.

"Sandy," as he is called by everyone who speaks to him for five minutes, is articulate in answering any question regarding tunnels both in the United States and abroad. His enthusiasm for the conservation of natural resources in the Hudson Valley began with the formation of Scenic Hudson as well as the Clearwater. Sandy and Sandy's father and mother were part of the original group that created both organizations.

Most great thinkers and leaders, when dedicated to a subject, can answer any question thrown at them, no matter how mundane or technical it may be. In Sandy's case his passion for tunnels and what they can do in saving the environment have led him deep into the bowls of the earth beneath Queens to the Queens Water Tunnel project, to Switzerland and the many tunnels that crisscross that country, and to Norway and its tunnels, which have uniquely decorative interiors.

Most of the tunnels in both the United States and other parts of the world built in the recent past, including the Churnnel that connects England and Europe, were built using a very successful and proven technology. Basically the technology consists of a huge rotary cutter that pushes forward on powerful hydraulic shoes. The cut-away material is passed through the machine to a conveyor or railcars and then carried out of the tunnel.

The secret to Sandy's proposal for the Tappan Tunnel rests in using the thousands of tons of gravel dug out in the cutting of the tunnel to make the concrete needed for the three 50' diameter tubes that would make up the final corridors beneath the Hudson River. In Sandy's vision, the tunnels would begin well back beyond the immediate shoreline both on the east and west sides of the Hudson River and continue across Westchester and Long Island Sound, with up ramps accessing major intersecting roads including the Long Island Expressway, New England Thruway and the Deegan Expressway. Further, in Sandy's calculations, there would be enough material left over for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, The Department of Transportation Authority, as well as the Thruway itself to use in their many other projects. When asked, "Where you take all this material as it is removed in the development of the Tappan Tunnel, his straight forward answer is, "the tracks leading out of the tunnel would go straight to one of the empty quarrys located on the West side of the Hudson beyond the Palisades. There the material would be processed and could be transported by rail where needed."

The second secret to Sandy's proposal is that fact that a railroad would be included in the bottom half of the finished Tappan Tunnel. So there would be 3 auto lanes in the upper half of the 50 foot diameter tunnel, and commuter trains in the lower part. The combination of the two modes of transportation would provide a unique all-weather method of travel both east and west. In addition the railroad would involve federal funding which would further help the New York Thruway Authority in financing the project.

During my hour long conversation with Sandy I asked, what would become of the existing Tappan Zee Bridge? He excitedly, "Simple, the bridge would be taken down, and the shoreline restored and returned to the communities to be used for environmentally sound projects that would enhance the beautiful Hudson River!"

Sandy's enthusiasm for the project has led him to meet with the John R. Platt, the chairman of the New York State Thruway Authority and to bring his proposal for a RFP for a Feasibility Report on the proposed "Tappan Tunnel" to the attention of Governor Pataki. Believe it or not, in all the discussions of the transportation needs between the east and west shores of the Hudson River, there has not been any serious investigation of the possibility of a tunnel instead of a bridge. The following is the word for word letter from Sandy to both entities in regard to this subject:

Alexander Saunders
Saunders Farm
Garrison, NY 10524


The Final Report for Long Term Needs Assessment and Alternative Analysis I-287/Tappan Zee Bridge Corridor is seriously deficient in its attempt to address the long term problems presented by the congestion and physical deterioration of the Tappan Zee Bridge. It mentions in Section 2.2.13 the crippling delays caused by the extraordinarily high accident rate of approximately 1300 accidents per year. It addresses certain scenarios of traffic growth versus traffic manipulation by demand management, congestion pricing, additional bus service, reactivation of the West Shore Railroad among others. It fails to address in any realistic way the additional congestion to be anticipated by continuous reconstruction and maintenance, increased growth, continued and increasing accidents, and continued weather problems including rain, sleet, snow, fog and sun glare both morning and night. In the final analysis, it offers no solution to the problems of the I287 Corridor.


I287 (The New York State Thruway) and I95 (The New England Thruway) were conceived and built with virtually no regard to the municipalities destroyed by their construction, most obviously Nyack and Tarrytown. Any attempts to widen the existing right of way, increase or decrease traffic, add rail transportation or replicate the existing Tappan Zee Bridge will be met by the most vigorous community opposition.


The greatest deficiency in the report and greatest disservice to the affected communities is the failure to address the replacement initially of the Tappan Zee Bridge and ultimately of the complete I287 Corridor with a subsurface tunnel. In the current social and economic context using current technology, tunneling proves significantly more economical, safer, less intrusive to the municipalities affected, and less disruptive to continuing traffic. Modern tunneling equipment is reliable, efficient, safe and highly economical in its use of manpower. In addition to producing the needed transportation infrastructure, tunneling yields very valuable byproducts. The gravel produced by the excavation is readily marketed and in short supply. The real property currently under pavement has great value when returned to private use, which may include residential areas, corporate management and industrial parks and green ways and municipal parks. The final cost of an underground highway and rail transportation system will be significantly less than continued maintenance and enlargement of the present surface system. In modern Europe, tunnels are used in many contexts, including bypass of historic cities and scenic lakes and mountains. The desecration of a cultural resource by a highway is now quite unthinkable.


The general structure of a three-lane tunnel easily defines a two-track railway in its lower half. The railway is another almost cost free byproduct of the tunnel construction process and is again weather free and non-intrusive to the communities it serves.


In addition to the above mentioned benefits of restoration of the affected communities, safety due to a weather free environment, minimal community intrusion during and after construction, minimal traffic disruption, considerable savings, and creation of a railway, there also will be a tremendous saving in completion time. Rather than subjecting the surrounding communities and the traveling public to a minimum of 20 years of continued chaos, a tunnel project can be completed on the Tappan Zee component in less than 5 years and on the entirety of I 287 Suffern to Rye in less than 10 more. The report fails to offer any definite time line in Section 4.4.4 but anticipates at least 5 years for development of the so called low impact alternatives, i.e., traffic management, West Shore Railroad restoration and initial TZB repairs and many, many years more for the non-solution of a duplicate bridge and additional rail service.


Immediate rejection of the report and consideration of a tunnel system with all its benefits will enable a definite 5-year time line to start without further delays. The Tappan Zee Bridge and its approaches should be removed from the historic and scenic Hudson Valley. The traveling public should be accommodated safely and economically, without delay.


With modern tunneling technology in place, the New York area has a multitude of other opportunities for improvement including but not limited to:

The extension of I287 across the Long Island Sound to join I495 (Long Island Expressway) in Jericho. New Jersey to Long Island to alleviate the current ridiculous situation of traffic from New Jersey being emptied into the streets of Manhattan.

The entire Long Island Expressway The Cross Bronx-Bruckner I95 System. In each case there is no possibility of acquiring additional surface right of way for expanded surface superhighways and untold millions of man hours will be wasted every year in the continued traffic tie ups. As mentioned above, subsurface tunnel construction using tunnel boring machines automatically implies the creation of a mass transit rail system at the same time.

What is truly amazing is that the State of New York, nor the New York Thruway Authority has never taken a serious look into the option of a tunnel rather than a bridge.

John H. Vargo
Reprinted with permission from The Yellow Bastard