About 55,000 cars, trucks and buses use the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel every day—more than 20 million a year—but only a handful of drivers know that if mega-builder Robert Moses had gotten his way, they would be crossing on an approximately 1.5-mile long, twin-span Brooklyn Battery Bridge.
The author Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses, The Power Broker describes a battle between reformers and preservationists on one side and Team Moses on the other. Moses launched an aggressive, vicious and intensely personal, last-minute push to build a bridge instead of a tunnel. The fight stretched from Albany to City Hall to the halls of the White House and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s War Department and—80 years ago in 1939—resulted in what many believe was Moses’s most bitter defeat.
Documents, reports, letters and even Western Union telegrams in the Municipal Library and Archives paint a vivid picture of how a master builder used to getting his way by cajoling and bullying his opponents finally met his match.
The tunnel idea had been kicking around since the early 1920s, but did not pick up steam until 1935, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia set up a public works authority so the city could borrow $60 million, but the project had to be completed within two years.
As plans were proceeding for the tunnel—and how to pay for it—Louis Wills, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter to La Guardia on January 11, 1935 supporting the tunnel plan as the “next important step in your efforts to procure adequate vehicular connections to Manhattan.”
The Chamber noted that “much of the congestion in Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn is due to the concentration of heavy interborough traffic from the three lower East River bridges.”
The City ponied up $75,000 for a feasibility study. An April 28, 1936 report from the Board of Transportation to the Board of Estimate also championed the tunnel idea. “The tunnel would create a continuous highway that would be the shortest and most direct route for transportation of freight along the East River and South Brooklyn waterfront.” Proponents of the tunnel estimated it would cost about $60 million and would be “self-supporting.
At around that time, La Guardia tried to get Washington to foot the bill through Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt’s public works initiative.
Not everyone was crazy about the tunnel proposal, though. On September 16, 1938, Manhattan Borough President Stanley Isaacs fired off a letter to Alfred Jones, chairman of the New York City Tunnel Authority, saying he was opposed to the plan unless there were provisions “for the handling of traffic once it is let loose” in the tunnel area.
In a prelude to the battle ahead, Moses informed La Guardia on September 29, 1938 that Washington nixed paying for the tunnel because it could not be completed within the proscribed two-year period for public works projects
Then, on January 23, 1939, against the backdrop of a brewing World War II, Moses threw his last-minute curveball: The tunnel would become a bridge. O. H. Hamman, chief engineer of the Triborough Bridge Authority, released a brochure espousing Moses’s plan to build the Brooklyn Battery Bridge. In an introduction to the brochure, Moses wrote that it was “indisputable” that a bridge would be better, cheaper and more efficient than the tunnel he had once espoused.
The bridge, with all necessary approaches, can be built for about $41 million, as opposed to $84 million for a tunnel, Moses proclaimed. He said the bridge, which would sit 600 feet east of Governor’s Island, would be six lanes, as opposed to four in the tunnel; would cost under $350,000 in annual maintenance, less than half of the tunnel’s yearly upkeep; could be financed through bonds “without the contribution of a nickel” of city or federal money; could be built in 2 years and 3 months, rather than 3 years and 10 months for the tunnel, and would be 130-to-150 feet above the river so as not to interfere with navigation. Lacking funds to construct the tunnel, Mayor La Guardia quickly lent his support for the bridge.
Opposition was quick and fierce.
“And then, on January 25, the storm broke,” Caro wrote. “This was no protest that was going to go unheard. This was no circulating of petitions by a group of housewives out in Flushing …” Instead, he wrote it would be an epic battle between reformers and powerful civic and merchant groups that felt this was another example of Moses’s attempts to destroy “many of the values that made life in the city livable.” The reformers called Moses’s bridge construction numbers ridiculously low.
On January 25, Issacs fired off a “Dear Fiorello” letter which read: “I am sure you know that I am not wholly in agreement with you and Bob Moses concerning the plan for a new Brooklyn Battery Bridge. For the record, I have written a long letter in opposition to Commissioner (Rexford) Tugwell,” chairman of the City Planning Commission. That letter said a bridge would be detrimental to the City’s appearance and skyline, including “Battery Park and the tall buildings of Manhattan (which) are among the City’s greatest aesthetic assets.”
Moses fired back five days later, in a letter to Tugwell, which said Isaac’s “criticism of the project appears to be based upon the fallacious idea that any new artery into Manhattan creates more congestion and serious traffic problems.”
THE BATTLE JOINED
The powerful West Side Association of Commerce quickly joined the opposition, as did the Real Estate Board, the Citizens Union, the American Institute of Architects and the Regional Planning Association (RPA), headed by George McAneny, a former City official, municipal reformer and preservationist active in city politics.
On March 31, 1939, Harold Lewis, the RPA’s chief engineer, issued a letter strongly opposing the bridge plan, saying that a “series of vehicular tunnels of relatively small capacity and constructed progressively as demands require is a far better solution” than an enormous bridge. The RPA contended that the proposed site was “not a natural one for the bridge and its approaches in Manhattan would cause unjustifiable defacement and make impossible … improvement of Battery Park.”
Three days earlier, a man who identified himself as Frederick P. Bearings of Woodhaven, Queens, sent a La Guardia a telegram warning: “BROOKLYN BATTERY SPAN WOULD BE A VERY OBVIOUS TARGET FOR A HITLER SUICIDE SQUAD.”
The reformers hoped to get public opinion on their side. But as Caro observed, “All the reformers hopefulness proved was that they didn’t understand how much power—power over politicians—Moses had been given and how independent of public opinion he now was.”
Most of the city’s planning commissioners and elected officials sided with Moses as the process began to speed up. Two public hearings were held in February and on March 1, the Planning Commission approved Moses’s bridge plan by a 4-2 vote.
On March 9, Moses, who was vacationing in Key West., Fla., fired off a telegram urging the Mayor to authorize a bridge and remove the tunnel authorization, saying they were incompatible. Caro wrote that the telegram was not a request but an ultimatum: If the mayor wanted money from Moses’s Bridge Authority, he would need to officially scrap the tunnel idea.
The die was cast. On March 27, the City Council held a marathon hearing on the bridge plan. Seven hours into the hearing, after the reformers had spoken, Moses launched into his hostile and aggressive argument with vicious personal attacks, basically branding the reformers as Communists and, according to Caro’s book, calling the 70-year-old McAneny “an extinct volcano … an exhumed mummy.” Caro wrote that Moses sidestepped many of the issues and “those he did answer he answered with lies” about the cost and construction timeline before striding out of the hearing chamber brimming with confidence. The Council approved the plan 19-6 the next day, the Legislature authorized the bridge on March 30 and the Board of Estimate okayed it 14-2 on June 8.
VICTORY—AND THE DEFEAT
It seemed that Moses had won. But defeat was lurking about 225 miles away in Washington, D.C. —and he was about to suffer one of his few major losses in trying to recreate the city as he saw fit.
President Roosevelt’s War Department needed to approve the project before work could begin because there were War Department facilities on Governor’s Island and Treasury Department facilities in the Battery. There also was concern that the bridge would be a wartime target, impede shipping access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and, Caro wrote, a feeling that FDR wasn’t too enthusiastic about it.
Moses must have sensed trouble because he was having difficulty getting meetings, according to documents in the Archives. On July 17, War Secretary Harry Woodring flatly rejected the bridge plan later calling it “a hazard to self-defense.”
Moses wasn’t done yet, though his effort to pull victory from the jaws of defeat failed. In an appeal of Woodring’s decision he said the ruling “has created an impossible situation in that it eliminates the only practical solution (the bridge) of the vitally needed vehicular crossing” from the Battery to Brooklyn.
He also enlisted editorial writers at the Daily News and the Brooklyn Eagle to urge FDR to set aside Woodring’s decision. But they fell on deaf ears.
On July 20, 1939—even before Moses’s appeal was rejected—the bridge opponents held a “Victory Luncheon,” featuring several hours of self-congratulatory speeches.
When all was said and done, the Tunnel Authority broke ground for the new tunnel on October 28, 1940. Construction was not completed for nearly 10 years due to a wartime shortage of materials. The 9,117-foot-long tunnel finally opened on May 25, 1950. The toll was 35 cents. It’s now $9.50—and known as the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel.