We’re Shafted: Water Tunnel 3 Will Drill City

A horn blast is scheduled to sound at noon on Aug. 16 at 30th Street and 10th Avenue, to be followed by an underground dynamite explosion that is likely to rattle the panes of the Daily News building nearby. Some people will rush to their windows, fearing the worst. Instead, they’ll witness the official commencement of the Manhattan leg of the ThirdWaterTunnel,a60-mile-long, decades-old project being built in ancient bedrock hundreds of feet beneath the city.

Four years after completing the Bronx and upper Manhattan leg of the tunnel, city officials finished plans for the project’s main Manhattan portion just several weeks ago.Theyhaveseta timetable-construction of the main underground staging area begins with the Aug. 16 blast, and tunneling is set to start in November.

And in a move that is likely to eventually provoke an outcry in several Manhattan neighborhoods, officials have quietly selected nine specific sites-many in dense communities like Greenwich Village, Turtle Bay and the East Village-that will be torn up to make way for the project’s shafts.

The shafts, which will be dug after the Manhattan part of the tunnel is finished, will line the tunnel route, a nine-mile-long U-shape that starts at West 60th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, goes down the West Side to the Holland Tunnel, hooks east to the Manhattan Bridge, heads north up the East Side and finishes in Central Park, where it joins the already-completed first leg.

The word “shaft,” however, does little to convey the enormity of the task at hand, although it may aptly describe what’s eventually going to happen, at least temporarily, to the project’s neighbors. A tunnel shaft is a 20-foot-wide tube that will transport water from the tunnel to the surface. The shafts will be drilled straight down from street level, 60 stories into the bedrock that holds up Manhattan’s skyline.

And these shafts are going to be drilled in neighborhoods where residents are known to rise up en masse against sidewalk cafés.

“There will be people upset about thenoise,”concededRobert Gaffoglio, thechiefengineerforMayor Bloomberg’s Department of Environmental Protection. “But New Yorkers are rugged people. They accept this kind of thing. People will be amazed at the size, enormity and complexity of what we’re doing. It’s a magnificent undertaking.” In fact, it’s one of the largest public-works projects in American history, and it’s been underway since 1970.

The launching of the Manhattan leg is a milestone in the hidden but spectacular history of New York’s underground infrastructure. The Third Water Tunnel-whose first stage, in the Bronx, upper Manhattan and Queens, opened in 1998-is meant to guard against a catastrophic breakdown of either of the city’s two older underground water tunnels. When the project is finished in 18 years, the tunnel will connect the Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers to four boroughs, linking up with another tunnel serving the fifth, Staten Island. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani once described the project as the underground equivalent of the Great Wall of China. Although only a third of it has been built, the tunnel already has given rise to a body of literature immortalizing the workers who are building it-the sandhogs, who earn their living by burrowing through rock so the rest of us can ride subways, run power lines and dispatch human waste with the pull of a chain.

Nobody has given the Third Water Tunnel much thought since 1998, when the first leg was completed. But city officials have been quietly forging ahead, and now a huge and enormously complex capital-works project is about to begin right under our feet.

In embarking on the $700 million Manhattan portion, the Bloomberg administration is taking on what may be the most daunting phase of the project. Shafts will be built in some of the city’s most crowded neighborhoods, and residents living south of Central Park will almost certainly experience some inconvenience as the drilling unfolds. According to city officials, shafts will be built at 60th Street and Amsterdam Avenue; at Hudson and Houston streets; in a traffic circle near the approaches to the Holland Tunnel; just under the Manhattan Bridge; on Fourth Street just east of Bowery; on 38th Street just west of Second Avenue; and on 54th Street just east of Second Avenue, among other locations.

Making matters even more daunting, workers will be burrowing their way through lower Manhattan, where ancient fault lines have produced fissures in the bedrock that could lead to cave-ins.

“Down at the southern end of Manhattan, there is a large fault area,” said Mr. Gaffoglio. “When you run into rock with fault lines, sometimes they’re fractured from the geological plates rubbing against each other. You’re digging through rock that could crumble. It’s dangerous work, quite frankly.”

The sandhogs already know that. The project, for them, has always been more dangerous than spectacular. They report to work 600 feet underground and spend eight hours a day wondering if the damp bedrock roof above their head will stay up. The only thing distracting them is the inescapable dampness and the shriek of metal against rocks. They know all too well what’s befallen some of their colleagues. Workers have been crushed and burned. They have fallen hundreds of feet. They have been thrown from underground trains and smashed against bedrock walls. Twenty-three men have died building the tunnel-one per mile, as they tell each other. With nine miles to go in Manhattan alone, and another 27 in future phases, the brutal mathematics of the tunnel are too horrible to contemplate.

Risk and Rewards

So they focus instead on another calculus: Sandhogs get paid $2,000 a week. They are buzzing about the project, taking stock of it at their union headquarters in the Bronx and at O’Farrell’s, a watering hole near the site’s ground zero at 30th Street and 10th Avenue.

“They’re excited,” said Richard Fitzsimmons, the head of Local 147, the tunnel-workers’ union. “It’s good. You get a job for three years, you’re in good shape. They want to feed their families. They want to send their kids to college. They want that house; they want that second car.”

There’s plenty of work to be done. To hollow out the Manhattan stage, workers will haul some 223,500 cubic yards of rock out of the bowels of Manhattan. That’s enough rock to cover a street as wide as Fifth Avenue with a four-inch-thick layer of gravel stretching nearly 50 miles.

Work will begin at the staging ground at 30th Street and 10th Avenue, where a shaft plunging 60 stories has already been built. Dynamite will be used to blow out enough space at the bottom to assemble an enormous grinding machine, which will be lowered into the ground piece by piece. The machine, which is known as “The Mole,” will be outfitted with a 20-foot-long spinning blade.

Once the Mole is assembled, the workers will start burrowing north, towards West 60th Street. Chipped rock will be loaded onto underground trains that are built to transport the rock back to 30th Street, where it will be lifted into the light. Later, the rock will be converted into gravel that may eventually end up on driveways in Long Island and New Jersey. It’s not hard to imagine that the gravel taken out of Manhattan’s bedrock may eventually end up on the driveways of suburban homes owned by the sandhogs’ adult children.

After reaching 60th Street, the drill will be moved back to 30th Street, where it will burrow south, around the tip of lower Manhattan and, finally, up the East Side. The tunnel should be completed in around four years, after which construction of the shafts will begin.

The shaft locations were identified by city officials after years of condemnation battles, meetings with community leaders and private negotiations with developers. City officials condemned a parking lot at Houston and Hudson streets, enraging the owner and scuttling his plans to build there. They managed to win over officials at Fordham University, which has its Lincoln Center campus on West 60th Street, by promising to halt work on graduation day. They selected the Manhattan Bridge site after tests showed that the rock at another nearby spot wasn’t strong and couldn’t support the shaft. They decided on 54th and Second after developer Harry Macklowe asked the city to abandon another nearby spot where he wanted to build a high-rise.

City officials acknowledge that there may be hidden logistical snarls-such as traffic-awaiting them as they proceed with the shafts. The East 54th Street spot will require the long-term closing of a traffic lane and the elimination of some parking. The Holland Tunnel spot will require moving of trucks in and out of one of the most notorious traffic swamps in the city.

Officials promise that disruption will be minimal and say that the most offensive din will occur only in the first stages of shaft construction. Nevertheless, the prospect of living near a deep pit is likely to prove unappealing to just about any Manhattan resident, save for those looking for a quick route to China.

If history is any guide, the city is certain to face some opposition. During the first leg of the project, the shafts were dug mostly in desolate industrial areas, and when shafts were proposed for residential neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn, they sparked uproars. Homeowners marched with signs reading “Don’t shaft our neighborhood!”

Although the construction of shafts in Manhattan is several years off, that may only give opponents more time to organize. And there already is a bit of grumbling on East 54th Street, where it’s slowly dawning on residents that a disruption is in the works.

“I can’t believe they would screw up the neighborhood like that,” said Sara Polito, a banker who has an apartment on the block. “If it’s that deep, I would be worried about the structural integrity of the buildings. It’s a very residential block, and there are a lot of tall apartments.”

But the fact is that the city needs the Third Water Tunnel. If it isn’t finished, and if one of the other two aging water tunnels breaks down, the city will be faced with two choices: evacuate half the city, or figure out a way of importing a billion liters of Poland Spring each day.

“Teddy Roosevelt pushed for the creation of a great reservoir system at the beginning of the 20th century,” said Christopher Ward, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. “To insure that clean, pure water will be available to future generations of New Yorkers, we are building an equally spectacular water tunnel at the start of the 21st century.”

-additional reporting by Brandt Gassman

An Underground history of the third water tunnel

1842: New York celebrates the opening of the Croton Aqueduct, which brings desperately needed water from Westchester County to the city. It’s the precursor to the tunnels that will later bring water from upstate reservoirs to the city.

1849: Demonstrating the vital importance of clean, safe drinking water, thousands of New Yorkers die in the latest of a series of lethal cholera epidemics.

1872: Sandhogs organize for the first time to protest hazardous conditions during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. The sand- hogs later form a union, Local 147, some of whose workers will spend their entire careers on the Third Water Tunnel.

1917: The First Water Tunnel, stretching 18 miles from a reservoir in Yonkers to the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan, is completed.

1938: The Second Water Tunnel goes into service to deal with the eastward development of New York City.

1954: City engineers predict the need for a Third Water Tunnel to allow for repairs to the first two tunnels and to improve the water supply and water pressure.

1960’s: Planning begins for the Third Water Tunnel. In a design departure, valves controlling the flow of water are to be housed in large underground chambers, making maintenance and repair easier. The tunnel is also designed to make it possible to close certain parts down while others remain open.

1970: Construction begins on the Third Water Tunnel during the Lindsay administration.

1975: Angry, unemployed sandhogs march on City Hall. The fiscal crisis and disputes over funding of the project force suspension of construction.

1986: Author and journalist Jimmy Breslin releases Table Money , a novel that relates the history of sandhogs and their union.

Sept. 1, 1991: Firefighters find the body of a 12-year-old Bronx boy who had fallen down a 500-foot shaft while playing with friends.

1992: The city abandons the more traditional method of blasting with dynamite for an enormous drilling machine known as “The Mole.”

1997: Former sandhog Thomas Kelly publishes Payback , a novel about tunnel workers and the tensions between Irish sandhogs and Italian contractors.

July 1997: Two underground trains collide in the tunnel beneath Brooklyn, killing a 48-year-old sandhog named Thomas (Smitty) Noel. A water main bursts on the street outside Smitty’s funeral.

Aug. 13, 1998: Mayor Rudolph Giuliani commemorates the completion of the first leg of the tunnel with a ceremony in Central Park. Relatives of sandhogs killed on the job are in attendance. Mr. Giuliani turns on the Central Park fountain to celebrate the occasion.

May 1999: Singer Lou Reed discovers that the tunneling going on some 60 stories under Queens is causing a low rumble in the recording studio where he’s trying to record.

May 2001: The Queens-Brooklyn stage of the tunnel is completed. It runs from Red Hook in Brooklyn to Maspeth in Queens. The tunnel is 16 feet in diameter.

May 17, 2001: George A. Fox, an engineer who played a leading role in the building of the project’s first phase, dies at 81.

Aug. 15, 2002: Preliminary blasting is scheduled to begin for the project’s Manhattan leg.

November 2002: Tunneling for the Manhattan leg is scheduled to begin.