Brooklyn Boro

Latest rail plan would put tunnel under Long Island Sound

February 11, 2021 Pat Eaton-Robb, Associated Press, and Raanan Geberer, Brooklyn Daily Eagle

President Joe Biden’s promise to improve the nation’s infrastructure has renewed interest in the decades-old idea of a high-speed railroad connecting New York and Boston, possibly through a 16-mile tunnel under Long Island Sound.The new North Atlantic Rail plan was developed at the University of Pennsylvania planning studios. It calls for improving existing lines and building new infrastructure, including boring that tunnel, to create an electric high-speed line that would allow travel at well over 200 mph. Unknown to most people, the plan is similar to the original vision for the Long Island Rail Road, which had its first terminal on the Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, waterfront.

The LIRR’s planners in the 1830s envisioned a system in which long-distance travelers would take a ferry from Manhattan to Cobble Hill, then take the railroad east to Long Island’s East End, where they could then take a ferry to Connecticut and continue their journey to Boston. In 1844, a section of the LIRR under Atlantic Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn was put into a below-ground open cut, now known as the Cobble Hill Tunnel, to avoid having street-level railroad traffic in that busy area. The cut was roofed over in 1849, making it a bonafide tunnel. The LIRR’s plans for a roundabout route to Boston were dashed in 1849, when the New York and New Haven Railroad completed a land-based route to Connecticut.

As for the tunnel, it was bricked up in the 1860s after the state Legislature decided to ban steam locomotives in the city of Brooklyn. In 1980, rail buff Bob Diamond discovered the tunnel after entering it through a manhole at Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. He led tours of the tunnel until 2010, when the city revoked their permission on safety grounds. The estimated cost of the proposed 20-year project is over $100 billion, a figure proponents say is not outrageous, given Biden’s promise to invest $2 trillion on clean energy infrastructure. It’s the latest in a number of plans discussed since Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island first began talking about a high-speed rail system for the Northeast the early 1960s.

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A historical drawing of the circa-1844 Long Island Rail Road tunnel beneath Atlantic Avenue. Courtesy of Brooklyn Historic Railway Association


“This probably should have been done decades ago,” said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who is a co-chair of the coalition of interests pushing the plan. “But we now have a president that has made rail infrastructure a centerpiece of his campaign.”

Robert Yaro, a planner at the University of Pennsylvania and the former president of the Regional Plan Association, developed the latest model. Because of recent improvements in tunneling technology, he said, it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

“There are 36 tunnels of this length or longer that have been built or are under construction around the world in the last 10 years alone — over 100 in the last 20 years,” he said. “This is what the world is doing.” Critics have dismissed the plan, noting that over the decades, officials have failed to get local and environmental approvals for much smaller transportation ideas, such as an expressway that would link Hartford and Providence, Rhode Island, or even an expansion of state Route 11 in eastern Connecticut, a highway meant to finish a link between Hartford and New London, that currently dead-ends after 7 miles.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said that he is among those who believes the time is right to start thinking about improving train travel in the Northeast.


But Blumenthal said the focus should be on rebuilding the Hudson Tunnel in New York and the existing tracks between that city and New Haven. Yaro said he and the plan’s other architects designed the tunnel to go 100 feet under the bottom of the sound to minimize its effects on the environment. The economic benefits of making travel easier between two economic hubs would outweigh the costs in a region that has 11 percent of the population and represents 14 percent of the nation’s economy, he said. Connecticut state Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat who co- chairs the Connecticut legislature’s Transportation Committee, said he would like to see a federal-state partnership to push the North Atlantic Rail project forward.

Rail travel from New Haven to New York takes about 20 minutes longer than it did a few decades ago because of aging infrastructure, he said.

The interior of Moynihan Train Hall, Amtrak’s current New York City terminal in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Gov. Cuomo’s office

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  1. Robert Diamond Speaking of the historic Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, we still maintain a detailed website on its history. The Brooklyn Eagle covered the completed tunnel’s original opening, in its December 5, 1844 issue. The Invitation to its opening still exists: