Hundred-Million-Dollar Lights: The MTA’s Secret Investment

 Photo courtesy of Brendan Bell 

Photo courtesy of Brendan Bell 

After Hurricane Sandy flooded and severely damaged the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, the MTA began a long series of repairs and upgrades to rework the motor-vehicle passage that connects the Financial District to Brooklyn. The result has been constant construction at the Manhattan end of the tunnel ever since. In 2017, this meant tearing down pedestrian bridges and toll booths and beginning work on the newest, most puzzling addition to the tunnel: a pair of metal towers that stand over 20 feet tall, full of LED lights and topped with narrow stacks of lights pointed in every direction. At night, they light up a bright blue-white, and seem, at first glance, to be nothing but lighting installations.

However, the towers are part of a project with a budget of $100 million, featuring 17 similar towers at the entrances of other tunnels and bridges around Manhattan. According to New York transparency group Reinvent Albany, construction has already cost over $47 million, and has been funded, unlike most official projects, in incremental expenditures.

However, the towers are part of a project with a budget of $100 million, featuring 17 similar towers at the entrances of other tunnels and bridges around Manhattan.

 Photo courtesy of Brendan Bell

Photo courtesy of Brendan Bell

“I don’t know anything about them, but they’re brand new,” said one MTA Bridges and Tunnels worker. “They just lit them up [last September].”

The same worker confirmed that work was underway for similar towers at the Brooklyn end of the tunnel.

MTA officials say they know very little about the function of the towers, and chairman Joe Lhota, while he refused to discuss specifics, said they would house “security items” provided by Homeland Security. Reinvent Albany has suggested that this might be related to October 2016 announcements about plans for facial recognition cameras and radiation detectors as part of New York’s bridge and tunnel systems.

To passersby, the towers are tall pylons of a metal mesh, through which one can see cables and LED lights. Above these are narrow structures housing more lights with a single light and an antenna on top. Not far from each tower sits an installation of Philips panels labeled “Hugh L. Carey Tunnel / New York, NY / Aesthetic Lighting.” Both towers are decorated with the state seal and a motto—on one side, “Excelsior,” and on the other, “E Pluribus Unum.” There is nothing immediately alarming about their construction.

MTA officials say they know very little about the function of the towers, and chairman Joe Lhota, while he refused to discuss specifics, said they would house “security items” provided by Homeland Security.

But between the tremendous budget and the apparent connections with Homeland Security, the towers, which the MTA originally insisted were mainly architectural, garnered media attention in late 2017. Meanwhile, construction of additional towers is slated to continue, both at bridges and tunnels, coinciding with the addition of new electronic tolling systems and gigantic tunnel floodgates. While all constructed towers at this time are around 30 feet tall, there is discussion of towers at bridges that could potentially stand over 70 feet tall. What sort of purpose might these serve? If the MTA knows, they certainly aren’t telling.