February 7, 2013

Massive tunnel project to expand NY transit hub

Verena Dobnik / The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Sixteen stories below Grand Central Terminal, an army of workers is blasting through bedrock to create a new commuter rail concourse with more floor space than New Orleans' Superdome, just one of three audacious projects going on beneath New York City's streets to expand what's already the nation's biggest mass transit system.

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Contractors work on the East Side Access project beneath midtown Manhattan, in New York. The East Side Access is one of three bold projects under New York that will expand what's already the nation's biggest mass-transit system by 2019.

AP

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In this undated artist's rendering provided by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York show the Mezzanine node of the Second Avenue Subway at 46th Street in New York City. The Second Avenue Subway is being built to ease rider congestion on Lexington Avenue trains.

AP

But even with blasting and machinery grinding through the rock day and night, most New Yorkers are blithely unaware of the construction or the eerie underworld that includes a massive, eight-story cavern, miles of tunnels and watery, gravel-filled pits.

"I look at it and I'm in wonder, I'm in awe," says engineer Michael Horodniceanu, president of capital construction for the state Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "I feel like when I went to Rome and entered St. Peter's Basilica for the first time. ... I looked at it and said, 'Wow, how did they do that?'"

In New York, they hauled out so much rocky debris from under Grand Central that it could have covered Central Park almost a foot deep, Horodniceanu says.

Together, the three projects will cost an estimated $15 billion. And when they're all completed, tentatively in 2019, they will bring subway and commuter rail service to vast, underserved stretches of the city, particularly the far East and West sides of Manhattan.

"They'll be a game-changer for New Yorkers," says Horodniceanu, an Israeli-educated native of Romania who lives in Queens.

The most dramatic project will result in a sort of 21st century, underground Grand Central Terminal mirroring the century-old Grand Central Terminal above —a 350,000-square-foot, $8.3 billion commuter rail concourse with six miles of new tunnels. It will accommodate Long Island Rail Road trains that now bypass Manhattan's East Side as they roll east through Queens and straight to Pennsylvania Station on the island's West Side.

This so-called East Side Access will bring about 160,000 passengers a day from Long Island to a new station in Queens' Sunnyside neighborhood, then about five more miles to the new, eight-track Grand Central hub.

For now, the subterranean hub is a drippy, humid construction site. The raw, dark gray walls mark the dimensions of the future concourse — eight stories high, about 70 feet wide and 1,800 feet long, or about "five football fields, without the end zones," Horodniceanu says.

The Federal Transit Administration is kicking in $2.7 billion toward the estimated $8.3 billion budget, with the MTA state agency covering the rest using mostly taxpayer money.

Also under construction is the Second Avenue Subway that eventually will serve Manhattan's far East Side, from Harlem to the island's southern tip. The planned eight miles of track will open Manhattan's East Side to millions of people who now squeeze daily onto the Nos. 4, 5 and 6 subway trains running under Lexington Avenue.

Dubbed the "The Line That Time Forgot," the Second Avenue Subway has been a New York City dream since the 1920s. Then came the Great Depression and World War II, followed by lack of funds that stopped the project after several stretches of tunnel with tracks were built in the 1970s. The existing tunnels are now being incorporated into the new ones.

The first phase — 1.7 miles with stations between East 63rd and East 96th streets — is to be completed in 2016 at a cost of $4.5 billion. Funding and plans for the rest of the route are still up in the air.

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