The Cross Island Parkway begins at an interchange with the Belt Parkway and the Southern State Parkway in the Cambria Heights section of Queens. A short distance after exit 25B, which serves Linden Boulevard, forks off the Cross Island. The parkway runs northward along the Queens-Nassau county line upon leaving the interchange, running between Cambria Heights in Queens and Nassau's town of Hempstead (Elmont and Bellerose Terrace) as it enters Belmont Park. In Belmont Park, the Cross Island enters exit 26A, the first of two gated-entrance exit ramps for Belmont Park parking lots. After crossing under Belmont Park Road, the parkway enters exit 26B, a partial cloverleaf interchange which serves NY 24 (Hempstead Avenue in Queens Village and Hempstead Turnpike in Elmont). Paralleling the race track, the Cross Island Parkway continues north, passing west of Belmont Park's Long Island Rail Road station, where southbound exit 26C forks to NY 24.
After a final entrance ramp to Belmont Park, exit 26D, the Cross Island Parkway crosses under the Long Island Rail Road main line then Superior Road before crossing into Nassau County and the town of Hempstead. After the crossing, the parkway enters exit 27, a cloverleaf interchange with NY 25 (Braddock Avenue and Jericho Turnpike) and Jamaica Avenue before crossing back into Queens. A short distance later, the parkway enters exit 28A, serving NY 25B (Hillside Avenue) via a diamond interchange and exit 28B for Union Turnpike via a collector-distributor road. Now proceeding northwest, the Cross Island crosses under Union Turnpike and enters exit 29, a trumpet interchange with the Grand Central Parkway.
After crossing under the multitude of lanes that make up the interchange and the Grand Central Parkway, the Cross Island Parkway crosses under Douglaston Parkway and enter Alley Pond Park. The Cross Island parallels the Douglaston Parkway northwest for a stretch, entering exit 30, a trumpet interchange with the Long Island Expressway (I-495) in Alley Pond Park. The parkway parallels Alley Creek as it bends further to the northwest, entering exit 31, a partial cloverleaf interchange with NY 25A (Northern Boulevard) and the Alley Pond Environmental Center. Past the junction, the highway continues on a northwestward track as it passes under the Port Washington Branch of the Long Island Rail Road and begins to run along the western edge of Little Neck Bay.
After a pedestrian crossover, the parkway passes a parking lot for Bayside Marina, accessible only via the parkway's northbound lanes. The Cross Island Parkway soon leaves the side of Little Neck Bay and passes south of Fort Totten Military Reservation. While south of Fort Totten, the parkway enters exit 32, a diamond interchange with Bell Boulevard. A short distance later, the parkway enters another diamond interchange, exit 33, this time for the Clearview Expressway (I-295) and the Throgs Neck Bridge. The northbound lanes also boast a ramp for Utopia Parkway (signed as exit 34). After crossing under Utopia Parkway, the Cross Island enters the Whitestone section of Queens, where southbound, an exit 34 serves 160th Street and Utopia Parkway.
Continuing east, the Cross Island Parkway crosses through Whitestone, crossing under Clintonville Street, 150th-149th Streets and 14th Avenue before entering exit 35 southbound, serving 14th Avenue and Francis Lewis Boulevard. After crossing under 147th Street, the parkway enters exit 36, a partial diamond interchange with the Whitestone Expressway (I-678), which proceeds north to the Bronx–Whitestone Bridge and southbound towards John F. Kennedy International Airport. This interchange also serves as the northern terminus of the Cross Island Parkway.
The Cross Island Parkway was first proposed in 1930 by Robert Moses, President of the New York State Council of Parks, as part of a $20 million (1930 USD) plan to construct several parks and parkways throughout New York City. This proposal also included proposals for the Richmond Parkway and the corridor of the Grand Central Parkway. The proposal was held at the Hotel Commodore in Manhattan during the Park Association of New York City annual dinner, which had an attendance of 500 civic leaders. While the group accepted the idea, there were certain complaints about costs of the new projects, which were centered between Queens and Staten Island. The city had about $400 million in borrowing capacity, and that most of these projects should wait and be dealt with one at a time for funding by their importance.
The project for the Cross Island soon became the northernmost part of the 33 miles (53 km) long "Circumferential Parkway", a new roadway that would start at Owl's Head Park and run along the southern shores of Brooklyn and Queens. The Cross Island Parkway piece would begin at the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge (then under construction), cross through the neighborhoods of Whitestone, Bayside and Alley Park and run along the Nassau County border until reaching the Laurelton Parkway, which would connect the Cross Island and the Southern Parkway. In December 1937, Moses, now commissioner of the New York City Parks Department, recommended the Cross Island, along with the other parkways proposed in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and The Bronx would cost about $8,026,182 (1937 USD) to acquire land for and that it would erase numerous bottlenecks throughout the city.
In June 1938, the Regional Plan Association proposed 27 new parks throughout the city, including three that would serve the purpose of helping construct the Cross Island Parkway. The first, an approach to the Whitestone Bridge, the city had recently gotten control of, the second; a park along Little Bay, a section of the Long Island Sound that would also connect to the Clearview golf course. The final piece was a section near Willets Point that also included Little Bay, Little Neck Bay and connecting to Alley Park. The Regional Plan Association, in coordination with Moses, requested these new park ideas as urgent, and would help improve the parkway system through New York City.
The Circumferential Parkway, which would cost $28 million (1938 USD), was accepted on October 13, 1938, with $16 million coming from the State of New York and the city, while the other $12 million coming from the Public Works Administration. In order to make the money to fund the new parkway, a new court house for the Appellate Division had to be slashed along with subway improvements and additional funding from the 1939 capital budget. Costs of the new parkway were divided between the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn at a 66%-17%-17% design in favor of Manhattan. The new parkway would help connect other transportation facilities throughout Brooklyn and Queens, and as a result, plans for a connection to South Brooklyn and the West Side and East Side Highways. The city also appropriated $3.327 million for the land acquisition for the new alignment, plus the engineering work. Moses notified the board that he had $5 million worth of contracts to let so that work could start as soon as possible. The board also accepted the $12 million federal contribution for the new project.
The name of the parkway system was changed in December 1938 from the "Circumferential Parkway" to the Belt Parkway, on request by Mayor of New York City Fiorello LaGuardia, who settled an argument of different names, one of which included using the last three letters of Brooklyn and the first three of Queens to make the Lynque Parkway. However, people felt that name was a bit too absurd and Moses and the city agreed to the new Belt name, and removed the former name due to many people who could not pronounce the former name. Another proposed name for the new roadway, among others, was suggested by LaGuardia, calling the road the Ringstrasse Parkway.
Almost immediately after the parkway was approved by the city, bids were flowing in for new project contracts to construct the new parkways. The Belt system would be constructed via numerous contracts, which involved grading the new parkway, constructing bridges, and paving the new highway. 66 spans of bridges were going to be constructed for the entire system, with the section of the Cross Island Parkway between Fort Totten and the Whitestone Bridge approach being bid on by December 23, 1938. By this point, already seven contracts totaled at over $5 million (1938 USD). S.J. Grover and Sons, a firm based out of Ridgefield, New Jersey got the contract for the 3 miles (4.8 km) section, costing $570,630. Just three days prior, the city got bids for grading the new parkway through the Springfield neighborhood of Queens, crossing between Arthur Street and Brookville Boulevard. This contract also wanted a vehicular bridge constructed over the Cross Island Parkway at Springfield Boulevard and 225th Street. The project went to Petracca and Banco of St. Albans, at a cost of $565,358.35.
On February 4, 1939, Governor of New York Herbert Lehman gave permission to let the city construct the Cross Island Parkway piece that crossed into Nassau County. Known as the Bennett-Numan Bill, the bill also required the city to maintain and enforce laws on the Nassau County portion of the new roadway.
By February 1939, when the eleventh contract for the Belt Parkway was let, the project was already 26% along, with parts being built or completed of the $6.1 million (1939 USD) section of the Belt Parkway system. On February 24, 1939, the city let a contract to National Excavation Corporation for construction of the Cross Island Parkway between Hillside Avenue and 91st Avenue in Queens, that should be completed by November 1, 1940 at the cost of $339,584. The thirteenth contract of the project, let on March 10, would pave the Cross Island Parkway from Hempstead Turnpike to Linden Boulevard, a 1 mile (1.6 km) long stretch in Queens, a new separation between 115th Avenue and one at Linden Boulevard, with a completion date to be finished by December 1, 1940. Good Roads Engineering and Contracting Company of Wantagh won the contract with a bid of $597,794.
On March 21, 1939, bids were opened to construct three new bridges along the Cross Island Parkway, which included 160th Street, Utopia Parkway and Cross Island Boulevard, which had to be completed by September 16, 1940, was won by Elmhurst Contracting Company from Corona. On March 22, the city offered a contract of the grade separation of the Cross Island Parkway over the Long Island Railroad main line and its spur to Belmont Park, along with separation for nearby Superior Road. The project also included paving of the Cross Island between Jamaica Avenue and Hempstead Avenue. The contract went to the National Excavation Corporation at $718,250 (1939 USD), the lowest of three bids given for the project.
By March 31, 1939, the twentieth contract for the system was let, constructing a new bridge for the Grand Central Parkway to cross over Winchester Boulevard and westbound Grand Central traffic over the Cross Island Parkway. On June 13, bids for construction of the new interchange between the Laurelton Parkway, Southern State Parkway and construction of the new parkway between Linden Boulevard and 129th Avenue. Landscaping of the new parkway began around September, with the portion between the Creedmore State Hospital and Laurel ton Parkway being given for topsoiling and gardening for the new parkway, including humus, soil, trees, shrubs and vines. By December, 92% of the landscaping contracts had been announced, with the recent section between the Grand Central Parkway and Fort Totten.
While construction continued on the Belt Parkway system, including the Cross Island Parkway, construction was wrapping up on construction of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, which opened with a ceremony on April 29, 1939. Hailed as a connection to the 1939 World's Fair, LaGuardia and Moses led a ceremony of 4,000 people to watch the opening of the new $17.785 million bridge. Both politicians hailed construction of the Cross Island Parkway as the important part of the Whitestone side of the new bridge. Both the Whitestone and College Point neighborhoods had celebrations for the new project, which Moses described as a "logical and inevitable part of the Belt Parkway program".
By 1940, final bids on the new project were still coming in for the Belt Parkway projects, which included a contract let on April 17, 1940 for new fencing along the three parkways. Ross Galvanizing Works in Brooklyn won the contract for fencing between North Conduit Avenue and the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge along the Southern, Laurelton and Cross Island, at the cost of $41,030. On May 22, 1940, a contract was let to Frank Mascali and Sons, which paved, drained, filled and graded sections of the Cross Island Parkway between the Grand Central and the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge at a cost of $26,555.
It was announced that the entire Belt Parkway system, 34.9 miles (56.2 km) long, would open to traffic on June 29, 1940 with a ceremonial trip along the entire roadway. With a final total of nearly $30 million (1940 USD), the road was complete except for a portion between Plumb Island and Ocean Parkway near Coney Island. The due date on the Public Works Administration funding, set for June 30, 1940, was met, and the new parkway would have Moses, LaGuardia and the administrator of the PWA, John Carmody. The new parkway was groomed overnight by 1,700 workers to prepare for the opening. The general public would be allowed to join the new parkway in parts where the special dignitaries car had passed.
On March 18, 1956, a nor'easter blew into the Northeastern United States after wrecking the Appalachian Mountains on the previous couple days. The storm, which ended up killing 162 people from Virginia to Massachusetts, effectively shut down the city of New York. Several rail lines were shut down, service to LaGuardia Airport and Idlewild Airport was mostly suspended, and in Queens, over 1,000 cars across the city were abandoned by their drivers, including along the Cross Island. Entrenched in the segment of parkway around exit 8 (modern exit 29), over 3,000 motorists were stuck in the storm and left their cars behind.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) joined with members of the United States Army at Fort Totten worked to start rescuing motorists stuck in the pileup and get them to a city shelter. With a shelter at the Queens Borough Hall, only about 350 motorists went for use of the beds, which were placed in the courtrooms. Some drivers just stayed in their abandoned cars until their batteries died or they ran out of gasoline. Army members brought many motorists by jeep to Fort Totten for safety. The rest mostly went to nearby police stations, Creedmoor Hospital in Bayside, to a large garage close to the site of the accident, or taken by NYPD to nearby subway stations for service to home.
Exit numbers are consecutive with those of the Belt Parkway.