Replacing the century old rail tunnels that run beneath the Hudson River and carry about 200,000 passengers per day between New York to New Jersey has been a high priority for many years. But after Superstorm Sandy hit the east coast of the United States in 2012, the urgency to replace the tunnels increased dramatically.
The Hudson Tunnels project is one of nine projects that make up the larger $30 billion Gateway Project. The Gateway Project has been called the most urgent infrastructure program in the country and the Hudson Tunnels is the most critical part of the project, as it will build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and rebuild the existing and deteriorating North River Tunnel that connects New York and New Jersey.
“Superstorm Sandy proved the level of resiliency of the tunnels, which was not very good,” Amtrak deputy chief engineer structures James Richter told attendees of the George A. Fox Conference in New York City on Jan. 23. Age and corrosive salts deposited by flood waters from the storm in 2012 have affected interior concrete and copper wiring in the tunnels. “Since then, things have been deteriorating and getting less reliable.”
Richter, along with Mohammed Nasim, senior director engineering design, both with Amtrak, spoke at the 2018 George A. Fox Conference where more than 350 tunneling and underground construction professionals attended the conference at the Graduate Center of the City University if New York to share insights about the complexities many of them face on daily basis.
Under the theme of “Managing construction of complex underground projects: Strategies for tunneling in populated areas,” the one-day conference featured presentations from some of the top minds in the tunneling and underground construction industry. The presentations touched on everything from the highly technical challenges of constructing tunnels through changing geology while working beneath cities and rivers, to navigating the complex financial issues and contracts that come with the projects that have many stakeholders.
All of those challenges, and more are part of the Hudson Tunnels project. It is one of the best examples of the full complexities of a complex tunnel project, with the added pressure of securing funding from state and federal government entities under an increasingly tight deadline.
The addition of new tunnels beneath the Hudson River was part of plan in 2010 to replace the 100-year old tunnels currently being used. That project was cancelled in 2010 by then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a funding dispute.
If just one of the tunnels is taken out of service for repairs it has devestating consequences on the region that supports about 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
While there is a consensus that the project is desperately needed, funding for the project has recently become more complex.
In President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 released on Feb. 12, the White House envisions $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending over the next 10 years. However, only $200 billion would be direct federal spending aimed at leveraging state and local dollars.
The Associated Press reported that state and local governments would be able to use the federal money for up to 20 percent of their project’s cost, which is vastly different from the model state and local officials supporting the Hudson tunnel project have relied upon.
Their estimates have been based on a 50/50 agreement, reached with President Barack Obama, that would have the states and federal government splitting the cost for the larger Gateway project.
Even before the draft budget was released, things did not look good. A letter from the Federal Government on Dec. 31, 2017 cast doubt over the funding of the project. According to the New York Times, a letter from K. Jane Williams, the acting administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, scuttled a funding agreement for the first phase of the project, which was estimated to cost about $11 billion. Amtrak and the states of New York and New Jersey had hoped that the federal government would cover half of that cost, but a Trump administration official disputed that notion, calling any such agreement “nonexistent.”
Another issue, far away from the challenges beneath the river or tunneling through rip rap rock that has been in place for 100 years, is a 2012 law that threatens to hold up funding. The USA Today reported that “both states (New York and New Jersey) must obtain certification by April 15, 2019 for their State Safety Oversight programs, which Congress required in a 2012 transportation bill to prevent and mitigate accidents on rail transit systems. Both states now remain short of achieving that goal.
If they fail to meet the deadline, they would be ineligible to not only receive money for the tunnel, but they also would forfeit hundreds of millions of dollars in federal transportation money annually to support their transit systems.”
If the current tunnel fails, hundreds of thousands of commuters would be stranded from their jobs, causing a multi-billion dollar debacle for workers and the companies that employ them, said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a civic association comprised of chief executives of some of the city’s largest companies.
The Trans Hudson Tunnels project, Richter said, will improve reliability to double the capacity in the region, by adding redundancy and resiliency to the tunnels while maintaining uninterrupted commuter rail service between New Jersey and New York and intercity Northeast Corridor rail service. According to New Jersey Transit, “The project addresses a specific need related to deterioration of the North River Tunnel. When completed, the project will address a critical infrastructure need, will also strengthen the resilience of the Northeast Corridor to provide reliable service by providing redundant capability at the critical Hudson River crossing, and will help to facilitate a future expansion of rail capacity between New York and New Jersey. However, while the Hudson Tunnel Project addresses maintenance and resilience of the Northeast Corridor Hudson River crossing, it will not directly increase rail capacity. Ultimately, an increase in peak period service between Newark Penn Station and Penn Station New York cannot be realized until other substantial infrastructure capacity improvements are built in addition to a new Hudson River rail tunnel.”
Estimated completion date for the project is 2026 and the rehabilitated tunnel will open in 2030. During the new tunnel’s creation, the current one will remain open.
The Hudson project was just one of many that were talked about at the conference.
“The conference focused on the challenges faced by owners, designers and contractors with projects of various complexities,” said conference chairman Frank Arland. “The Keynote presentation kickedoff the conference and provided attendees insight from Giuseppe Quarta, chief executive officer for the consortium that managed the design and construction of the Panama Canal Expansion, constructed to accommodate the larger size Panamax ships. Of interest is that approximately 3 percent of the world’s maritime commerce moves through the canal. Construction required about 74 Mm3 (2.6 billion cu ft) of excavation and placement of over 5 Mm3 (176 million cu ft) of concrete which is illustrates the scale of this massive project.”
That projected was completed in June of 2016 and not only was it an extremely challenging engineering feat, it was a job that included as many as 11,000 workers. Quarta spoke of the construction accomplishments and the challenges of keeping people out of harm’s way on such a large project.
Thilo Tecklenburg, chief operating officer, North America for Meridam spoke about financing complex infrastructure projects. The rise of PPP projects has lessened the risk for owners, contractors and other stakeholders, but it has added complexity. Techkenburg spoke about the how risks are shared between public sector partners and private sector partners and said “each risk should be allocated to the party that is best able to handle it.
Another massive project that was talked about is the Brenner Base Tunnel, in fact, it is the largest rail tunnel in the world at 40 miles long, connecting Italy and Austria beneath the Brenner Pass, a trading route that dates back centuries. At the Fox Conference, Gerhard Urshitz provided an update on the project.
2017 was an eventful year in the tunneling industry. Bertha finished its work on the SR-99 project in Seattle, Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway in New York was completed, Jacobs acquired CH2M to create a $15 billion professional services firm and Elon Musk grabbed headlines with his foray into the industry with the Boring Company. Jim Rush, editor of Tunnel Business Magazine provided the always popular Tunnel Industry Update. He covered the highlights of 2017, talked about ongoing projects like the East Side Access project and finished with a look at upcoming projects such as Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and California’s Water Fix project and high speed rail project.