Underneath 2nd Ave., a TBM struggles to move forward

By · Published in 2010


Nearly three and a half months ago, local politicians and MTA officials came together in the giant pit underneath Second Ave. to celebrate the launch of Adi, the tunnel boring machine for the Second Ave. Subway. While symbolic, the launch was a momentous sign of progress for a project eight decades in the planning and eight decades delayed. Although the current iteration of the Second Ave. Subway had originally been slated for a 2012 opening, with the launch of the TBM, the MTA felt confident it would be ready by the end of 2016.

As with many things concerning the MTA’s capital construction program, though, the best laid plans of mice and men always seem to go awry. Earlier this month, the TBM had gone only 300 feet, far less than the estimated 40-60 feet per day, and officials assured me that the tunnel boring machine was simply going through some growing pains. It would be pick up the pace soon, they said. That reality has not come to pass quite yet.

Ten days ago, the MTA ran into a speed bump when a probe drill surfaced on Second Avenue, just a few away from active gas lines. At that point, the MTA had to investigate the incident, but spokesman Kevin Ortiz said the timeframe would remain the same. “We don’t anticipate this to have an impact on completing of the first run of the TBM before the end of the year,” he told me.

Today, this news is the same, and yet again, MTA officials are promising that the grass is greener on the other side, that the sun will come out tomorrow, and that a few more cliches are applicable here. As the Daily News reports, the TBM is averaging just 14 feet per day due to various mechanical issues, and amNY says the drill has reached only 90th Street.”We have yet to achieve the productivity I was hoping,”Michael Horodniceanu, head of capital construction, said. “We were plagued by a lot of technical problems.”

Pete Donohue says that the machine’s problems have included a broken driveshaft as well as issues with various “electronic components and hydraulics systems.” While Horodniceanu says the problems are in the process of getting resolved and that TBMs often face unforeseen obstacles in the first few months, the MTA’s tale documents tell the tale of another delay. The following chart is from this week’s Transit Committee deck and shows the TBM timeline:

As is plainly obvious, the timeline for the TBM work has already slipped by six months. It is not expected to wrap now until the end of 2011. This is but another delay in the ongoing saga of the Second Ave. Subway.

Publicly, the MTA claims this new TBM timeframe won’t impact the completion date of Phase 1 of the SAS, but even that late 2016 date is in doubt. Although transit officials haven’t gone on record saying so, the agency appears to be heeding the FTA’s timeline. The feds think a mid-2018 completion date is far more realistic. Sitting here today in 2010, I wouldn’t bet on the 2018 with my SAS Futures Fund either.

It’s not easy to build a subway through a densely populated part of town when utilities aren’t mapped and American companies don’t possess the engineering expertise. Still, as the Second Ave. Subway slowly moves toward completion, the timeline is stretched out further and further into the future. Because of the federal investment, Phase 1 will see the light of day, but Phases 2-4 are in doubt. If they make it off the paper, we won’t see the full line until the late 2020s at the earliest, and the Second Ave. Subway continues to be the city’s greatest unrealized promise.

25 Responses to “Underneath 2nd Ave., a TBM struggles to move forward”

  1. Justin Samuels says:

    This stuff is quite typical of all major infastructure projects, and not just subways. A variety of issues always pop up, and the firms who have the construction contracts, as well as the municipality, typically have to change things. I’m not sure why they would use only one tunnel boring machine anyway, as the 7 line extension and LIRR to grand central deployed two tunnel boring machines drilling parallel tunnels at the same time. Come to think of it, the machines for the 7 line extensions are finished with their work now.

    For the 63 street tunnel, it didn’t open until 1989, and it wasn’t connected to the Queens Boulevard line until 2001, almost 30 years after they started construction on it. So it eventually became fully operational.

    Yes, one day the full length second avenue subway will be existence. You may or may not be around to see it, so its something that one really shouldn’t get too concerned about. It will happen when it happens.

    • Brian says:

      The case with the 63rd St line was that the stations were already built and completed by 1985-1986. Likewise with the Archer Ave. Extension. The TA has proven time-and-time again that their mega projects will never go on as planned. As a result of such, the NYC Subway system will always be regarded as one of the worse in the world.

    • Matthew says:

      Unfortunately the 63rd Street line is not fully operational and it appears that it never will be. It was built as a relief line for the 53rd Street express tracks. There was to be a super-express for the Queens Boulevard line from where it currently connects out towards the Archer Ave line. When the super-express was canceled, that’s when they decided to at least connect it to the QB line to make it somewhat useful.

      • Brian says:

        That’s why the MTA didn’t want to open up the 63rd St. Line. The MTA felt it wouldn’t add to the system’s health and would serve the needs of passgengers. The Federal Govermnment (most of the money came from them) stepped in and forced the TA to open the line in 1989. The TA would eventually begin connecting the 63rd St. Line to the Queens Blvd. Line in 1994.

      • bob says:

        That plan (which I never thought much of) was dropped a long long time ago. To say it’s not “fully operational” is pointless – there are hundreds of plans and proposals for the subway that never happened.

  2. Robert says:

    huh? it will happen when it happens? phase 2-4 will definitely be completed by the end of the 2020’s…

    • And what money is going to pay for it?

      • Justin Samuels says:

        Same as whatever money paid for MTA transit projects in the past 30 years or so. Whatever federal government money they can get. Or if New York State’s and City’s tax revenues improve in the next few years, all they have to do is sell some more bonds and back them up with either future tax receipts, train fares, or tolls. The standard way states do business, and the same way the city paid for the 7 line extension. To tell you the truth, a portion of the money raised for the LIRR to Grand Central and the UES portion of the Second Avenue subway was raised by bond sales (the state of New York sold bonds to raise its contribution to the project).

        The city of Los Angeles is working on selling 30 billion dollars of bonds for their transportation projects and they’re lobbying the feds for federal backing. New York could do the same.

        • Caelestor says:

          The MTA has incurred too much debt. Unless they get rid of it, expect further regressions in the system.

          • Justin Samuels says:

            Since when has occurring too much debt stopped any government agency from issuing more debt, and I’m even speaking of the federal government itself! With that said, as debt has to be paid off, eventually they have to do things to increase the money available to service the debt. That includes using technology to lay off employees (bye, bye token booth clerks), bye, bye redundant bus routes (this has already happened), and certain other cuts will be made as well.

          • Alon Levy says:

            All transit operators have debt. JR East has debt, Tokyo Metro has debt, Korail has debt. Those companies separate interest from operating expenses, so their main financial performance metric is profitability after depreciation and interest.

  3. Al D says:

    Get the TBM over from the 7 extension to help out.

    • bob says:

      Different geology uses a different type of TBM. And SAS is wider subway cars, so I think the tunnel bore is wider. My impression is that changing the width of a TBM is pretty much building a new one.

      • Brian says:

        That shouldn’t made a difference. The TBM’s for the 7 Ext. and SAS are the same diameter. The TA wants their newly constructed parts to be built for B Division specifications.

  4. Kid Twist says:

    They should have just gone with cut-and-cover and gotten it over with. It’s not like boring underground has prevented complaints from the neighborhood.

  5. Brian says:

    If they make it off the paper, we won’t see the full line until the late 2020s at the earliest, and the Second Ave. Subway continues to be the city’s greatest unrealized promise.

    Ben, you just sumed up the whole SAS project in two sentences. Kudos to you for doing so. The issue with SAS is they waited too long to built it. Its a shame we can’t build things in this city without having to overspend and face delays.

  6. The overarching issue with SAS is that it has always been the adopted stepchild of MTA projects, destined to go to the end of the line for money, TBMs, you name it. ESA, Fulton Street, and the Mayor’s #7 extension are simply much dearer to the hearts of whomever has occupied the MTA executive suite in any given decade. The irony of this is supreme – the most valuable addition to mass transit in over half a century takes a perpetual back seat to mindless make work projects for the construction trades and MTA executive egos.

    • Justin Samuels says:

      The Fulton Street Complex and the East Side Access are not good examples, as they too are behind schedule. This simply happens with most major contruction projects. Look at the World Trade Center reconstruction.

  7. bob says:

    ” American companies don’t possess the engineering expertise.”

    Can you back that up? The people running SAS have built subways all over the world. The one discussed by a project manager at a Transit Museum presentation was Athens, which was quite difficult since the whole city is an archaeological site.

    I think the problem is really due to politicians pushing for too much optimism in the initial announcements, so the schedules are unrealistic, and all the limitations put on by the local community. If you want a major benefit like this for the long term you should accept some traffic problems and less sleep in the short term. If some business don’t survive, they will be replaced by new ones.

    Maybe the 7 line work went so well because they didn’t have the restrictions wealthy 2nd Ave residents demanded.

    • Justin Samuels says:

      People also weren’t following the 7 line work as much, so if it has technical difficulties, we wouldn’t know. The Fulton Street Complex, has had major difficulties, yet we finally see some major progress in it as some contracts have been finished. The East Side Access, btw, is also behind schedule.

    • Alon Levy says:

      The 7 extension work isn’t doing well at all. It’s more expensive per-km than any subway line outside New York; it only looks good because it’s slightly less expensive than SAS.

  8. Ben says:

    This project gets more and more depressing. This project is typical of badly run projects everywhere. Bad management, bad plan, bad execution.

    The only way to fix this thing is to hire the top construction managers in the world, and give them the ability to change the plan, and hold people accountable. If we have to go to cut and cover in some areas, go to cut and cover. If the plan we have is the best plan, then great. Manage it better. Let world class pros run this thing.

    Threaten the contractors with lawsuits if they don’t perform the work they are suppose to do. Get the underground portion of the project working 24/7, which it is not right now. Get the station locations excavated, because at some point the tunnel is going to be dug, and they need to be ready. We can armchair quarterback this thing forever.

    Of course, the MTA isn’t going to do much, if anything. It’s really up to whatever leverage the Mayor has to try to influence what’s happening. It may not be desirable or possible for him. If we do nothing, then all that’s left to do is scratch our heads, weep, whatever. It will take about a decade (or longer) to build 2 miles of subway. These people are scoundrals.

    • Alon Levy says:

      The top construction managers in the world are not New Yorkers. They are Madrileños. Therefore, New York’s political class will not even think of hiring them.

      • Ben says:

        Maybe it’s time to name names. Skanska is at the center of Second Avenue Subway mess, the World Trade Center excavation/preparation (almost 10 years to dig a hole in the ground), East Side Access, the downtown PATH station. Our city is being held hostage to one company. Sure, the MTA gives a contract here or there to someone else. Why put Skanska in the critical path of the future of this city? Especially with the track record it has.

        But the problem isn’t just Skanska. It’s too easy to blame contractors. It’s at the MTA, the folks responsible for using time and money in a responsible manners. There’s needs assessment, architects, design, city planning many other aspects to take into account. There are many ingredients, and we need someone at MTA who will wrestle this thing, knowing that Skanska is in the critical path.

        In the future, we should give major contracts to other companies, and not Skanska. Let them finish two of these projects and then, and after an audit, maybe we should consider them again.


  1. […] is continuing apace. When we last checked in on Adi, the TBM drilling out the subway tubes, it had reached only 90th St. and was drilling an average of just 14 feet a day. In August, however, the MTA was able to pick up […]

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