12/11/2012 12:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Take the T Train

It was the ultimate behind-the-scenes tour -- or more accurately, under-the-scenes -- about 100 feet into Manhattan bedrock via an access shaft to see exactly how the Second Avenue Subway (SAS) is coming along.  The guidelines were clear: wear boots with thick tread. So at 8 a.m. last Wednesday, 20 of us donned hard hats and goggles and descended into one of the longest-spanning construction projects in New York City history.

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Michael Horodniceanu, President of MTA Capital Construction Company, shared the project history and led the tour. I digress to encourage you to read up on his remarkable 30-year public/private sector career. This job is not for the faint of heart and requires leadership, determination and probably, a great sense of humor.  Who else would have a Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) named Adi, after his granddaughter? 

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The excursion was organized by The Women's Forum of New York, a networking organization founded in 1974 of 400+ women leaders who share unique programming and leadership roles in matters such as corporate governance and more.  Forum member and MTA Chief Operating Officer Nuria Fernandez facilitated this event.

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The dream of the SAS originated in 1929 as part of the expansion of the subway system.  Between the Depression, WWII and competing needs for capital funds, nothing happened while the city demolished the Second Avenue El (1940-42) and Third Avenue El (1955-56) and the East side population boomed. A late 1960s transportation bond issue led to the building of three sections of the line in the early 1970s: 99-105th Streets, 110-115th Streets and a section under the Manhattan Bridge.  Construction was halted due to a lack of funding.  As for the Lexington Avenue line, it carries 1.8 million people each workday. That's more than the systems in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco combined, according to Michael.

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The SAS is being built in phases, this being phase one: from 96th to 63rd St, scheduled for completion by 2016.  The train will connect to the Q at 63rd, and for the moment, will carry that name.  Phase two will be from 96th to 125th (incorporating the previously dug tunnels) before heading south in Phase three to Houston Street, and finally, Phase four to Hanover Square. When completed (though nobody knows when that will be) the new T Line will be 8.5 miles long, with 16 stations at an estimated cost of about $30 billion in today's dollars. 

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There are the facts, and then there is the experience of having an hour or two to marvel at the expansive cavern and tunnels.  The logistics and engineering required to build 100 feet below the street and not disturb utilities or buildings, while dealing with unanticipated surprises (like needing to freeze a section of bedrock for $20 million, or shoring up neglected buildings along the way, Michael shared) only magnifies the feeling of awe that comes with being in the tunnel and launch boxes.  What goes down -- large trucks, machinery, supplies -- goes down via electric cranes through the supply shafts; and what goes up -- tons of muck and earth -- travels the same way. 

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The work crew, urban miners and construction workers who work underground -- or Sandhogs as they are referred to -- are responsible for the construction of the city's water tunnels, transportation tunnels and subways.  Like the city's firemen and police force, many are third or fourth generation Sandhogs and I don't believe there are any women in their ranks.  Women do play a role in the construction of the subway and in the MTA, however: from Nuria Fernandez as COO, to architects, engineers, consultants and no doubt other support roles -- just not Sandhogs.

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A 10-story building would have fit into the area where we entered.  The base floor of the caverns and tunnels range from dry to "mucky" -- you are glad for those waterproof boots.  It was warm and because the drilling phase was done and the TBM had been removed, we saw and walked through the perfectly shaped tunnels.  It was otherworldly as the sounds and signature of New York City were completely absent.  Though things are built slowly (the TBM moved in six inch increments), the sum total is an underground metropolis.  


We watched sections of waterproofing get applied -- a technical process that is critical to keeping the system bone dry, and requires a series of processes from coating the walls, to installing the yellow indestructible liner layer, to filling in the gaps with something like concrete via tubing.  We saw areas that would in the future be built up to support tracks, utilities and stations.  We learned about the plans for air temperature control (a subject never broached on a platform in a New York City heat wave). The SAS will be "air tempered," so in the summer it will be 10 degrees cooler than street level.

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These two hours spent with the MTA crew observing a tiny slice of the century-old project called the Second Avenue Subway stimulates interest in so many connected subjects: public transportation needs, the politics of funding, the intricacies of engineering, city planning and anticipating the future needs of New York City.  It has been winding its way through my mind, much like the subway system itself -- a collection of tunnels, stations and connections that heroically keeps our city thriving.


When asked when Phase four might be completed, Michael Horodniceanu assured us that no one in the room would be present for that event.  But in reflecting on the future he said wistfully, "Hopefully, people will remember the lessons we learned."


For further reading: - fascinating blog on the SAS and MTA

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