The Holland Tunnel Takes a Breather

By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett

In 1927, hours before the Holland Tunnel was due to open officially, Chief Engineer Ole Singstad wanted a final moment alone with his new tunnel.   Singstad’s major contribution to the tunnel was its ventilation system, which has since become the worldwide standard for all vehicular tunnels.



For political reasons, all the speeches given at the eastbound tunnel in Jersey City had to be repeated at the entrance to the westbound tunnel in Manhattan.

Singstad later told the New York Times, “I couldn’t wait to enjoy my tunnel, and so I set out to walk it alone.  Soon I heard a rumbling, shuffling sound in the distance. ‘Good God!’ I thought, ‘it sounds like an ocean, like the tunnel’s caved in.’”

Singstad had the jitters anyway because of widespread predictions of a ventilation system failure or some other major tunnel disaster, but his fears were unfounded. Jumping up to the sidewalk, he was relieved to discover the noise wasn’t water, but only a wave of pedestrians who had been allowed a tunnel preview.


The tunnel built by Singstad, Clifford Holland and a legion of others never suffered a catastrophic failure.  Rather, it has proven itself sturdy and remarkably resilient through the ages, connecting lower Manhattan and Jersey City for more than 34 million motorists annually.  As the tunnel has aged, the Port Authority has made upgrades to keep its operations state of the art, including to its ventilation system, which has inhaled fresh air and exhaled toxic carbon monoxide every 90 seconds for almost 90 years.

HT 1935 NJ to NY

The eastbound tunnel entrance in Jersey City. When enabling legislation for the Holland was passed in 1919, lawmakers assumed the tunnel would be used by pedestrians, horse-drawn wagons, trucks, and a few “pleasure vehicles” aka cars.

As Stephen Ansine, Physical Plant Manager, described it recently, “The ventilation system is the heart and lungs of the tunnel. Without a properly functioning ventilation system, the Holland Tunnel doesn’t operate. It’s just a hole in the ground.”

Proper ventilation inside the tunnel relies on 84 massive fans, which the Port Authority currently is replacing with more energy-efficient and quieter models in an ongoing state-of-good repair project due for completion in 2017.


One of the new fans recently installed at the Holland Tunnel

Tunnel Systems Controllers operate the ventilation system 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year to ensure the safety of the public using the tunnels. The system has 14 sets of intake and 14 sets of exhaust fans, with the air divided among 14 exhaust ducts and 14 intake ducts.  Each duct is equipped with three adjustable speed fans for a total of 84 fans.  The system operates by drawing fresh air from the outside through the Ventilation Buildings, with a land and river building located in both New York and New Jersey.


New York river ventilation building with downtown Jersey City in the background.

A roaring air stream is divided among ducts and blown into the main duct underneath the roadway in each tunnel, where it passes through ports located along the roadway.  The fresh air mixes with vehicle exhaust before being drawn up toward the ceiling, which then is pumped out through slits in the ceiling into the exhaust air duct.

Maintaining healthy air quality requires that someone monitors the fans and makes adjustments as necessary 24 hours a day. Two fans operate a single duct during peak times of traffic congestion. During less busy times, one fan is sufficient to maintain air quality.  A third fan serves as backup.  Ansine is assisted in his responsibilities by two supervisors, Dan Brijlall and Robert Reilly, who share more than a half century of Holland Tunnel experience between them. “There isn’t much that has happened at the Holland Tunnel over the years they haven’t handled,” said Ansine, “Folks like Dan and Bob make it happen. Whatever arises, I always ask them, ‘what have we done in the past’?” he said.

Holland Tunnel people are a bit like sports fans when it comes to the natural rivalry between the Holland and the Lincoln. They like to brag that the Holland’s white tile is cleaner, and the air inside is cleaner than the air outside. Said Ansine, “It’s all in good fun, but we’re fortunate to have a great team.  We do what we have to do to make good on the guarantee that every motorist can make it through safely.”


Annually, more than 34 million motorists use the Holland Tunnel.

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