Photos by Derek Mead
When I lived in Beijing before the Olympics, the entire city looked like a feverish construction site, but the spectacular emblems of progress weren't just being hoisted up by cranes high above increasingly large traffic jams. They were being blasted and bored and drilled and dug; by the time China strutted out onto the global stage at the Opening Ceremony, the city had eight subway lines where, five years prior, there had been only two.
"They have a bit of a different process than we do," admitted Thomas Peyton, a soft-spoken civil engineer who is a vice president at Parsons Brinckerhoff, the company overseeing construction of New York's newest subway tunnels. We were standing on 84th Street on Thursday, above ground. About six stories below, workers in hard hats were milling about a muddy, rocky subterranean expanse. Kleig lights that illuminated hulking machinery, miles of piping, and thousands of years of dust—kept at bay by giant water diffusion cannons—gave the space an alien atmosphere. To the north, two fresh tunnels stretched into the distance; to the south, a cavern opened up beneath my childhood neighborhood like a giant underground cathedral. In the distance, more tunnelling.
Nearby, workers were atop a pile of mud, preparing explosive charges for another blast, the kind that's needed to hollow out enough space for a high-tech, $600 million subway station.
In Beijing, where all land technically belongs to the state, building a subway is mainly an engineering problem (Peyton's firm has worked on a number of Chinese rail projects too). In New York, building the world's biggest new subway line in the middle of some of its densest (and most demanding) neighborhoods is not exactly just a matter of engineering.
Between addressing a barrage of community concerns, acquiring permits, and managing the contracts of every contractor on site—from the sandhogs who build tunnels to the electricians who install the lights—Peyton said, "there's nothing as big as this."
"You always have the NIMBYs—not in my backyard," said Michael Horodniceanu, president of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Capital Construction, while we were standing in the 86th Street cavern, a hundred feet below street level. "In this case, we're in everyone's backyard! That's why we need to go in and work as fast as we can and get out as fast as we can."
On June 26, 2012, a Second Avenue Subway construction crew blasted rock for the future 72 St Station.
The remarkable plan has taken longer than any other in the city's history. First proposed in 1929 and again in 1951, but persistently hobbled by money woes and community opposition, the Second Avenue Subway will open, in a first phase, in December 2016. That two-mile $4.5 billion section will provide some relief for the most trafficked subway route in America: currently, the nearby 4/5/6 IRT Line carries some 1.3 million riders a day, which is more than Boston and San Francisco's entire networks combined. The project is one of the largest ever mounted in human history, rivaled only perhaps by the East Side Access plan, another MTA project that would make it possible for commuter rail from Long Island to reach Grand Central Station. Other phases of the subway—all four would cost a projected $17 billion—have yet to receive federal and state funding.
Once the trains start rolling along Second Avenue in just over three years—the Q is scheduled to start using these tracks first, followed by a new line, the T—changes will come above-ground too, perhaps most visibly by pumping up land value and fancier apartment buildings along the avenue. "As much as we impacted the real estate during construction phase," said Horodniceanu, "I think there will be ample rewards once the subway is done."
That hasn't exactly calmed residents and shop owners, whose costs include lost access, lost business, lost sleep, and, they have feared, other potential losses. Explosions, which are carried out only during daylight hours, are meant to be controlled (in part, I discovered, using a layering of old tire treads).
But last August, a blast to build a cavern that will hold the future 72nd St. station wasn't. Rocks reportedly flew eight-stories into the air. No one was hurt, but windows were shattered, and the Daily News posted a video and conducted an investigation into safety violations at the site. (A horn sounds when a blast is about to blow, but the MTA doesn't say when the blasts will happen; when I and Derek and a group of reporters visited, we weren't even allowed to photograph the explosive charges being set in the rock.) But, reported Horodniceanu, the blasts are set to end this August. "The major blasting," he added.
While a number of complaints remain—one tenants group is suing the MTA over proposals for an entrance to the 86th Street station, the agency's relationship with the community has warmed since construction began in 2011. That was the year the hulking two-story "muck houses"—temporary buildings that sit on top of the construction—began to rise; they'll start to come down this year. Regular updates, a new website, and monthly meetings have been helpful for building trust, Horodniceanu said. "But these are not bitching sessions. These are about listening to each other and developing solutions together," he said in a way that implied he'd been through a lot of bitching sesions.
The hulking sixty-something civil engineer—who speaks in a native Romanian accent, and who studied at Israel's Technion before moving to New York in the '70s—was once called "possibly the least well-known and most respected high-level M.T.A. official." Despite the headaches that surely come with overseeing the world's largest urban construction projects, Horodniceanu has a tendency to smile a lot. He's full of one-liners and once offered an olive branch to a dissatisfied restaurant owner by joining him in the kitchen.
Later he remembered another important lesson for dealing with the humans that live nearby engineering projects: "This is important—it was something my mother taught me—never lie. We never tell stories, we always tell the truth."
One truth: the challenge of building a subway through some of the densest neighborhoods in America is compounded by the fact of Second Avenue's century-old buildings, which Horodniceanu said often lack any construction documents and weren't exactly designed with the future in mind. "When you're blasting and boring and doing other things around buildings that don't have solid foundations—they have what are known as 'rubble foundations,'" he said, "that can potentially be something of a challenge." (The M.T.A. has inspected over 200 buildings in the process of construction, and has destroyed none of them, although it has had to buy a lot of property through eminent domain law, including, coincidentally, a handful of pizza shops along the line.)
Of course, the above-ground challenges are on top—literally—of a "million" other things. The geology of Second Avenue, like much of the island, is a mix of rock and soft ground, consisting of sands, silts, and clays over a rock known as Manhattan schist—a mix that isn't easy to build inside. There are faults and shear zones and fractured rock too. Engineers must also be careful to avoid hitting the myriad tunnels, utilities, pipes and cables that circulate above and below, and they must also plan around subway lines, Amtrak railway lines, and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. Notably absent, however, at least on my visit: rats. The MTA says a rodent control program has been in place since construction began, but that didn't stop residents from blaming the agency for a recent rat infestation.
Mike Horodniceanu, president of MTA Capital Construction, near the downtown tunnel at the future 86th Street station
The construction is done bottom-up. Workers use explosives and heavy machinery and a giant refurbished 22-foot-wide tunnel boring machine—capable of digging about 66 feet per day—to excavate rock. They erect walls and install insulation, using a sophisticated membrane system to better control water, the scourge of subways. To know where and how to dig, planners have consulted a map, first drawn in 1865 by Egbert Viele, which illustrates the many waterways that criss-cross the island of Manhattan. Despite urban construction above and below ground, the waterways still flow, much as they did centuries ago, said Peyton.
Horodniceanu hopes that the community will stop worrying and learn to love the subway, and he's got a secret weapon too: monthly tours for local residents. "Before this, what New Yorker can say they've been down in the tunnels during a subway's construction?" he asked as we stood down there in a someday-subway station, above the din of machinery and rushing water. "The last time we did anything like this was decades. If they're not lying, they're probably dead by now."
Upstairs, in the restaurant turned field office on Second Avenue and 84th street, a piece of printer paper hung above a door, with a quotation by Mario Andretti. "If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough."
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