The United Nations estimated the world’s population would hit 8 billion people on Nov. 15, 2022 and that it would climb to 10.4 billion by the end of the century. According to the World Bank, 56 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities or urban areas and that trend is expected to continue with urban populations more than doubling its current size by 2050 to a point at which nearly 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas.
This growth of urban areas will undoubtedly lead to challenges of accelerated demand for affordable housing, employment, basic services and a viable infrastructure that includes transportation systems, water, sewage and other utilities.
According to the World Bank the expansion of urban land consumption outpaces population growth by as much as 50 percent and 1.2 million km2 of new urban built-up area will be added by 2030. This will add immense pressure on land and natural resources around the world. Cities already represent two-thirds of global energy consumption and produce more than 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Where cities can no longer expand out or up they will increasingly look to grow below ground. Tunnels and underground infrastructure have always provided a solution to many urban growth challenges, and as the world confronts climate change and a need to decarbonize, tunnels will continue to play an essential role in the global efforts to meet the climate goals set by the Paris Accord. Mass-transit tunnels like the proposed West Seattle Project in Seattle, WA or the Sepulveda Pass tunnel in Sacramento, CA could help remove thousands of vehicles from daily commutes and the emissions that come from them. Combined sewage overflow tunnels, such as the Thames Tideway Tunnel in London, England will help clean the Thames River and the city itself. And increased underground infrastructure can help make way for useable space above such as a community park over Interstate 70 in Denver, CO.
However, just because the end result of tunnels provides many solutions to the challenges presented by urban growth, the tunneling industry has found that is does not get a pass for the means in which the tunnels are constructed.
On the same day the global population hit the 8 billion mark, nearly 300 of those people gathered in Long Beach, CA for the 10th Annual Cutting Edge Conference presented by UCA and Tunneling Journal. The issues of advances in tunneling technology and specifically, the industry’s role regarding sustainability and carbon neutrality were top-of-mind for the two-day conference that has earned a reputation for its high-quality programming.
Andy Alder, Tideway project director, Jacobs opened the conference with a keynote address that focused on the social value delivered by the Thames Tideway Tunnel Project, a 25 km (16 mile) tunnel in London, England that will intercept, store and ultimately transfer sewage waste away from the River Thames. The project itself is one of the most impressive tunneling projects in the world as it incorporated six tunnel boring machines (TBM) to complete the 7.2 m (24 ft) diameter tunnel, and while Adler could speak at length about the engineering feats associated with the tunnel, he instead focused on the other impacts of the project.
London’s combined sewer system has been overwhelmed by the population growth of the city. The original system was built when there were about 2 million people in the city compared to the current population of nearly 10 million. Rains can often overwhelm the system’s capacity, leading to about 40 million tons of sewage overflows into the river. From an environmental stance, this overflow destroys wildlife and is a massive public health hazard, Alder said.
The environmental and public health issues were drivers for many of the decisions made on the project.
“Our mission is to prevent sewage from getting to the River Thames, and by extension we are making the river something that adds value to the city,” Alder said. “We wanted to embrace that vision and we set out to create a legacy and a commitment to the environment, and the health, safety and wellness of the people in London.”
Alder noted that the project committed to reducing carbon emissions through the use of electric-powered cranes over diesel power and to use the river itself for the transportation of construction materials. Using barges on the river had the added health and safety benefit of reducing the need for transportation on roads by about 50,000 loads.
Alder also spoke about the project’s commitment to the community to employ a large local workforce including people who have had previous legal or financial troubles. The project also set high diversity and inclusion standards. Some of the commitments included personal protective equipment (PPE) for males and females as well as PPE that is inclusive for religious traditions.
The Cutting Edge Conference was established in 2012 and has grown in the past decade thanks in part to a reputation for presentations about cutting-edge technology and practices in the industry. This year the program included many high-level technical talks as well as an important discussion about mental health.
Robert Labbe from American Global gave a very personal presentation about the need to look out for each other. The construction industry is a male-dominated industry with high stress, long hours, many military veterans and unfortunately, an unacceptably a high suicide rate. While the issue of mental health has moved from the shadows in many parts of society, it can be difficult to talk about in some sectors such as the construction industry. Labbe stressed the importance of checking in and keeping an eye on friends and coworkers in the industry.
One of the central themes during Cutting Edge 2022 was how can the industry improve its environmental, social and governance (ESG) status. Yes, tunnels are often part of the solution for a greener environment, but the construction of tunnels and of tunnel boring machines (TBMs) and other equipment often requires a large carbon output.
During the conference there were presentations about innovations in tunneling and the challenges that exist in getting to lower carbon through alternative means and methods. There was also significant time spent focused on incorporating sustainability into the planning of projects including a panel discussion focused on sustainability and carbon neutrality.
“In the UK we are seeing the public demand change that our projects are more sustainable,” said Adler. “We need to get the public’s support and convince the public that we are driving toward net zero. If we cannot get public support we won’t get political support either.”
During a panel discussion, Fernando Vera, Wolgang Aldrian, Alder and Chris Nelsen spoke about the challenges in making the tunneling industry more sustainable. Some of the issues facing the industry include getting support from clients and finding alignment with local and national governments.
The panel agreed that ultimately there has to be a framework that is flexible. Sustainability should be seen with the same level of importance as health and safety programs, and the players in the industry should recognize that it is a collaborative effort that includes the right funding and the right policies to make everything work. This will require innovation, and the risk should be shared between owners and contractors.
From an engineering perspective, Katherine Westerlund gave an impassioned presentation on the need for the industry to confront the challenges presented by climate change head on.
The decarbonization of equipment and construction materials is another issue that was discussed during the panel discussion and beyond. Werner Burger of Herrenknecht spoke about the rising trend of refurbishing equipment such as TBMs to greatly reduce the amount of carbon emissions needed to construct the machines.
The refurbishment of TBMs is a complex process that must be considered early in the planning phase of any project. There is a finite number of TBMs in the world and the diameter of the proposed tunnel must work with the diameter of the machine. There is also the challenge of incorporating state-of-the-art technology into a machine that was constructed for a project five to 20 years earlier.
Decarbonized construction material was also discussed during the conference. The fundamentals of tunneling remain largely unchanged, but new and more efficient materials offer potential improvements for the industry.
More than 480 attend 2023 George A. Fox Conference in New York City
On the same day that President Joe Biden was in New York City to announce $292 million in funding for part of the Gateway Rail Project, many professionals in the tunneling industry were gathered just a few miles away for the George A. Fox Conference at the New York Hilton Midtown.
The president’s visit on Jan. 31 did create a scheduling conflict for Kris Kolluri, chief executive officer of Gateway Development Commission who had been scheduled to present at the Fox Conference on the project but was pulled away to speak with President Biden about the funding that will be used to finish the Hudson Yards tunnel box.
Eric Daleo, chief program officer and Megan Strickland, deputy chief program officer both of the Gateway Development Commission presented in place of Kolluri and gave updates on what the commission is planning.
In light of the expected announcement of funding, the commission, which is composed of representatives from New York, New Jersey and Amtrak, is building the legal and financial capacity to manage the project. Strickland said there is good momentum for the project and the commission will work to keep that going.
The Associated Press reported that the $292 million mega grant announced on Jan. 31 is part of $1.2 billion in mega grants being awarded under the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
The grant will be used to finish the Hudson Yards tunnel box concrete casing, a project that was started in the summer of 2013 to preserve the route of the Gateway Tunnel from Penn Station to the Hudson River as foundations were built for the Hudson Yards project.
“We are looking at this as an early action construction project that will move ahead this year,” Daleo said. “It is a critical project that preserves a right of way and allows for development above ground and leads the other packages.”
The Hudson Yards Concrete Casing – Section 3 is one of nine nationally significant projects selected for this first year of the program out of 100 applications, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. This grant will be funded over the course of four years from fiscal years 2022 to 2025.
Another early construction project is at the Tonnelle Avenue Bridge. It was the first project that was undertaken 10 years earlier when the project was still called the Arch Project before it was canceled. Daleo said the Gateway Development Commission planned to issue a request for proposal for construction management and invitation for bid for services within a month for the Tonnelle Avenue Bridge work.
The Gateway project will be a renovation of the 1910 tunnel already carrying about 200,000 weekday passengers beneath the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan, a long-delayed upgrade after decades in which the government underfunded infrastructure.
Arnold Dix, president of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association and barrister, scientist and professor of engineering of counsel, White & Case gave the keynote presentation at the Fox Conference in which he emphasized the need for the industry to make a case to President Biden and other world leaders that tunneling and underground construction provides sustainable solutions for society.
“It’s no accident that President Biden is here meeting about the projects that you are working on,” said Dix. “The sustainability agenda is listed as part of the United States’ national security agenda. That tells you that the money and resources that you need to deliver your projects are nearby. That challenge is to make sure that your projects address the national security agenda in the delivery of health and wealth and well-being for your communities.”
The grant announced by Biden would also be used to help complete the concrete casing for an additional rail tunnel beneath the river, preserving a right of way for the eventual tunnel. In total, the project is expected to cost $16 billion and help ease a bottleneck for New Jersey commuters and Amtrak passengers going through New York City.
Other projects to receive mega grants include the Brent Spence Bridge, which connects Kentucky and Ohio; the Calcasieu River Bridge replacement in Louisiana; a commuter rail in Illinois; the Alligator River Bridge in North Carolina; a transit and highway plan in California; and roadways in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Mississippi.
Along with the announcement from the Biden administration, the Fox Conference included a number of talks about the current state of the industry and the projects that are in the works or are expected to begin soon. Good news for the industry and attendees, but also challenging news. Like many industries, the tunneling and underground construction industry is challenged with significant workforce issues. The hours can be long, and the industry can be demanding with professionals asked to relocate around the nation and even the world. And for the most part, the work of a tunneling professional goes largely unseen. The industry is also one on which many of its top-tier professionals are nearing retirement, thus a knowledge gap is looming.
One of the afternoon sessions was a continuation of a panel discussion that began at the previous Fox Conference and focused on these workforce challenges.
Mike Rispin, vice president of tunneling, Strata Worldwide and UCA Chair moderated a panel discussion that included Elisa Comis, managing director, Pini Group USA Inc. and member of UCA Women in Tunneling;
Vojtech Gall, senior tunnel engineer, Gall Zeidler Consultants and member of UCA Young Members; Everett Litton, assistant vice president, WSP – UCA Student Outreach / Down for That and Mike Mooney, Grewcock Chair, professor of underground construction and tunneling, Colorado School of Mines and coordinator of UCA’s Teach the Professors program. The panel addressed three overall questions:
- What do we need to do differently to make a career in the underground construction industry more attractive to young professionals?
- What do we need to do to improve retention of the young people currently in the industry?
- What should we be doing to market the industry?
While the answers from the panel covered a breadth of issues it was generally agreed upon that the industry needs to engage with students at the high school or even grade school level to create awareness of the good things it has to offer. And the inherent sustainability of tunnels for the improvement of society is an important aspect to be promoted to young people who want to have a career that has a positive impact on society.
At the conclusion of the panel discussion the audience was asked to carry the positive messages of the tunneling and underground construction industry forward to their local schools.