The Hudson River Hosts Two Major Infrastructure Projects

Dec 15, 2017

As anyone who has sat in construction-related traffic jams knows, there are infrastructure projects of all sorts under way across New York.  Some of the largest are in the Hudson Valley. One high-profile project is above water, while another below the surface is one of the largest repair projects for its agency. In the latest installment of our seven-part infrastructure series, WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne takes a look up, down and across two projects with a combined price tag of around $5 billion.

Not long ago, concrete decks were being removed from the recently retired Tappan Zee Bridge. Next to it, one span is open on one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country and probably the largest bridge project, at least in terms of cost — nearly $4 billion. In May of 2014, only construction cranes were visible, providing a backdrop when President Barack Obama stood in Tarrytown on the shores of the Hudson River. Obama highlighted the expedited review and permitting process that jumpstarted construction on the new Tappan Zee Bridge, recently renamed the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, after Governor Andrew Cuomo’s late father. With a president on the Hudson River shore, and New York’s governor alongside, the new bridge was in the national spotlight.

Jamey Barbas is project director of the New NY Bridge, the 3.1 mile span that connects Westchester and Rockland Counties.

“I think the biggest challenge on this project really is due to its scale because it’s such a big project both in dollar but in length, it’s over three miles long,” says Barbas. “So it really is an orchestration of different activities that need to happen at the right time. And when you’re dealing with such scale, it means that the difficulty is multiplied.”

But there is one aspect that helps. Barbas believes the bridge is on budget and on time due, in part, to the design build procurement method, which provides certainty about the basic project cost, an all-inclusive cost.

“So instead of waiting for the design to be finished and then putting that out for advertisement and then getting a contractor on board, it was one design-builder as a team that we awarded the project to, and a contract to that one entity, a contractor and designer together,” Barbas says. “So they hit the ground running with the designer talking to the contractor from the very first day.”

Tappan Zee Constructors is the design-build firm, so to speak, of the new transit-ready bridge, which is slated to fully open to traffic in 2018. Barbas, who has worked internationally, and been a bridge engineer for 30 years, says design-build is a new concept for New York and the U.S., but not so much overseas.

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card for America’s Infrastructure assigns letter grades based on the physical condition and needed investments for improvement. For 2017, the ASCE gave the U.S. a D+. Bridges garnered a C+. For New York, a 2015 report card yielded an overall infrastructure GPA of a C-. For bridges, a D+. 

Matthew Driscoll is acting director of the New York State Thruway Authority, the agency replacing the Tappan Zee. He previously served as state Department of Transportation commissioner.

“There’s no question that infrastructure is a challenge, and it’s a challenge, quite honestly, because for decades people put off those important investments into infrastructure, whether those investments were underground or above ground. And certainly transportation’s no different,” Driscoll says. “So there’s a real need, not collectively, candidly, across the country to really focus on infrastructure.”

Again, Barbas.

“How this project is an example of trying to overcome some of the deficiencies that are in our infrastructure system as a whole is that, for one, we are designing this bridge for a 100-year service life,” says Barbas. “That is a very unusual mandate.” 

And one that seeks to avoid a major reconstruction. It also comes with societal context, environmental awareness and high-tech sensors.

“One thing we will have on this bridge is a structural health monitoring system. And that’s a term that means we’ve instrumented the bridge with sensors, different strain gauges, anemometers, I mean, we can measure the wind, we can measure movements, we can measure strain,” Barbas says. “And all this information is electronically fed into a system to alert us if the bridge is not behaving the way it should.”

Think of them as preventative health measures. Barbas says they’ll help prevent repeating mistakes of crumbling bridges past. The sensors are not yet operational. Again, Driscoll.

“The new Mario Cuomo Bridge is certainly a game changer,” says Driscoll. “It’s something that everybody has talked about for decades. I think anybody who’s ever travelled that bridge at one point or another has always said, this needs to be replaced.”

Barbas, who joined the New NY Bridge project in October 2015, says dismantling the retired Tappan Zee is no small feat.

“When we demolish the existing bridge and have to take down these existing foundations below the river bottom because we want to restore the habitat on the riverbed, that is difficult work, and we’ve yet to start doing that. But I anticipate that as being quite challenging,” says Barbas. “The existing bridge is on some caissons that have about 75 percent of the dead load of the existing bridge in buoyancy, so these are unusual foundations and they can’t just have the walls, the concrete walls, just fall over onto the riverbed. If they do, they have to pick them all up, in the dark, under water. So I’m expecting quite a bit of challenging work ahead.”

She says the super crane, dubbed I Lift NY, and registered with the U.S. Coast Guard as the Left Coast Lifter, has been extremely helpful for both the old and new bridges.

Meanwhile, one of the largest public works projects taking place in the Hudson Valley comes on the heels of the construction of the Mario Cuomo Bridge.

“The Tappan Zee Bridge is moving cars and we’re moving water,” Sapienza says.

That’s New York City Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Vincent Sapienza, whose agency is working on a billion-dollar-plus repair project, the largest repair in the 175-year history of the agency’s water supply system.

“What about infrastructure needs for you, is this, does this top the list?” asks Dunne.

“It does. This is the biggest repair project that we’ve been doing. New York City DEP operates more than 7,000 miles of water mains and just as many miles of sewers, plus aqueducts, reservoirs,” says Sapienza. “This is the biggest repair that we’re doing but, we do a lot of work, we do more than $1 billion worth of work just generally per year to keep our infrastructure in a state of good repair.”

DEP manages New York City’s water supply, providing more than 1 billion gallons of water each day to more than 9.5 million New Yorkers, including in some Hudson Valley communities. This water comes from the Catskill, Delaware, and Croton watersheds.

The major project to fix two areas of leakage in the Delaware Aqueduct includes the construction of a 2.5-mile bypass tunnel 600 feet under the Hudson River, from the Town of Newburgh in Orange County to the Town of Wappinger in Dutchess County. The 85-mile Delaware Aqueduct is the longest tunnel in the world.

“The Delaware Aqueduct, which was built in the 1940s, has a leak which we need to repair, and the solution that was come up with was to build a parallel tunnel right alongside the Delaware Aqueduct,” Sapienza says. “And so this project here that we’re doing is to put a tunnel boring machine down a deep shaft to run parallel to the Delaware Aqueduct, the existing tunnel. It’s going to take about two years for the boring machine to make its way from Newburgh to Wappinger, about two-and-a-half miles. And once the parallel tunnel is built, we can then connect that to the existing Delaware Aqueduct to basically bypass the leaking section.”

“So it’s not fixing the leak in the way one would think of fixing a leak. You’re not going to go patch that up, you’re just going to build a bypass tunnel,” says Dunne.

“That’s right. So we looked for a long time as to how to make that repair and, we said, the only way to really do that, other than a bypass tunnel, is to shut down the aqueduct, stop water flowing through it, and then get in there and to the patch work. But that would take so long that the city just couldn’t survive with the limited amount of water,” says Sapienza. “Using a bypass tunnel and then quickly connecting it to the existing aqueduct is a much shorter duration and we would have sufficient supply in the city to deal with that.”

The tunnel boring machine for the DEP project is more than 470 feet long and weighs upwards of 2.7 million pounds. Her name is Nora, for the first woman in the U.S. to earn a civil engineering degree. Nora Stanton Blatch Deforest Barney earned her degree in 1905 from Cornell University and worked for the predecessor to the DEP. Nora the human also was a suffragist and granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Coline Jenkins is Nora’s granddaughter. She was on hand for the September announcement of the machine naming.

“And I’m going to end with a suffrage saying. And it is ‘forward into the light,” Jenkins says. “And what I want to do is adapt it to today for tunneling: ‘Forward into the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Both Nora and the super crane are considered vital in helping complete their respective projects on time. Workers and the tunnel boring machine are expected to begin pushing ahead toward the end of December, 24 hours a day, six days a week. Nora will advance some 50 feet per day, and specialized railroad cars will bring the pulverized rock to the surface. It should take the machine about 20 months to drive the tunnel from Newburgh to Wappinger.  The finished bypass tunnel will be reinforced by 9,200 linear feet of steel and a second layer of concrete. DEP then will shut down the Delaware Aqueduct to connect the bypass tunnel. The estimated six-month shutdown is planned for October 2022. The project is expected to be finished in 2023.