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By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate Editor
It had been a long time coming — nearly a hundred years. But at noon on Jan. 1, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) finally opened the station doors for passengers to ride the trains on the sparkling new Second Avenue Subway.
Second Avenue is the first major New York City subway expansion in decades. Trains on the line travel between a new entrance at a renovated 63rd Street station and stop at new stations at 72nd, 86th and 96th streets. Completed in December 2016, the $4.5 billion project is the first of four phases to construct the Second Avenue line — which, when complete, will span a little over 8 miles from 125th Street in Harlem to Hanover Square in lower Manhattan.
MTA officials say the new line is necessary to improve transit system access and reduce overcrowding and delays elsewhere in the system, such as along the congested Lexington Avenue lines.
The new subway has been popular with riders, MTA officials say. When it opened in January, there were 124,000 daily riders — a number that surged to about 155,000 before the end of the month. Since then, ridership has soared to about 180,000 riders per day. As more people have switched to the Second Avenue Subway line, ridership and wait times on the Lexington have dipped. In May, MTA announced plans to add more Q trains this month along the Second Avenue Subway line to alleviate crowding.
The subway's new stations were designed and built with passenger comfort in mind, including access for the disabled, MTA officials say. All escalators and elevators have connections to the street — an improvement for New York City subway riders used to staircase-only access to trains. Although the new stations are among the largest underground excavations in North America, their space is bright with vibrant lighting; spacious with high ceilings and column-free design to improve sightlines; and climate-controlled for comfort. A two-tiered mezzanine at each station helps improve the flow of riders and reduces crowding on platforms.
"The ability to see from one end of the station to another is remarkable," says Craig Covil, a principal at Arup who served as project director for the joint venture engineering and design team, AECOM-Arup. "That allows for intuitive way-finding. The signage and lighting are so much better than the typical New York City transit station."
Moreover, the facilities are designed to mitigate potential flooding from storms — a lesson learned from the subway system's devastating damage caused by flooding after Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in October 2012.
The journey to the Second Avenue Subway's New Year's Day opening dates back to 1920, when a Second Avenue line was mentioned in a New York Public Service Commission report that called for the development of a rapid transit system for the city. Subsequent plans to build the line were interrupted by major 20th-century events: the stock market crash of 1929, World War II, the Korean War, and New York City's dire financial straits in the 1970s.
Talks to build the line finally resumed in the mid-1990s. Environmental studies got underway in the early 2000s, and MTA chose the AECOM -Arup joint venture as the designer of record for the project’s preliminary engineering and final design.
By 2004, the Federal Transit Administration issued a record of decision that stated the environmental factors of a proposed subway line under Second Avenue on Manhattan's East Side were addressed. Around that time, it also was determined that the project would be divided into four geographic phases, with the first phase providing service from 96th to 63rd streets as an extension of the Q train.
• April 2004 — Final environmental impact statement completed • April 2007 — MTA breaks ground on tunnel work • May 2010 — 485 ton, 450-foot-long tunnel boring machine launches • September 2011 — Phase I tunneling work completed • September 2012 — Controlled drill and blast work within caverns completed • June 2013 — MTA awards last contract for Phase I • April 2014 — Track installation begins • April 2016 — Track installation completed • July 2016 — All stations connected to permanent power • August 2016 — Phase I is 96.6 percent completed • Jan. 1, 2017 — Phase I opens for revenue service
Source: MTA Capital Construction
It also was in 2004 that Tim Gianfrancesco began working on the Second Avenue Subway project as a member of the engineering group at MTA New York City Transit (NYCT). By 2007, MTA Capital Construction (MTACC) brought on Parsons Brinckerhoff to provide construction management services for the subway project's first phase. Also that year, Gianfrancesco became focused only on the project after he transferred to MTACC, the project's developer. By 2014, he was named MTACC’s deputy vice president and deputy project executive for Second Avenue Phase I.
Since then, Gianfrancesco has been named project executive of the Second Avenue Subway's second phase, which will extend the line north to 125th Street and add new stations at 125th, 116th and 106th streets.
Phase I was built in the middle of the subway line because that's where it could connect to existing service on the Q train at the 63rd Street station, Gianfrancesco says. Although it involved constructing less than 2 miles of track, the project was a monumental feat that required MTACC and the engineering, design and construction teams to tackle enormous challenges.
"We hadn't designed an entire new subway line for decades, so we were embarking on something that was new to the team for a job of this scope and magnitude," Gianfrancesco says.
AECOM-Arup provided engineering and architectural services for the Second Avenue Subway's full length, which would entail 16 miles of tunneling for two-tracks of the 8-mile line and 16 stations. The project’s immense scale and issues related to geology, existing buildings along Second Avenue and the maze of telecommunication and other utility lines created significant challenges from an engineering and design perspective, according to Covil.
Moreover, a comprehensive design approach was necessary to address the many social, economic and environmental issues that are unique to New York City and its distinct neighborhoods, he says.
Ultimately, the project was divided into the four geographic phases because it was so large.
During the design stage, working groups were formed to coordinate ongoing efforts between the joint venture team and MTA’s operating departments. The groups helped establish criteria and standards for building a new line that would be connected to existing NYCT tracks, stations and communications, signals and power systems, according to Gianfrancesco.
The design also had to address the agency's state-of-good repair needs, he says.
What's more, the entire process needed to be structured in a way that minimized inconveniences to residences and businesses along Second Avenue, one of Manhattan’s busiest streets.
For example, one method used to accommodate such special considerations was to build the 96th Street Station in two phases using the cut-and-cover method. First, a launch box was constructed where crews staged and planned to launch the 485-ton, 450-foot-long tunnel boring machine from between 92nd and 95th streets.
"As soon as we started excavating, we knew we would find a sea of extensive utilities that would have to be replaced, relocated or refreshed so that we could create our work zones," says Gianfrancesco. "We were constantly making corrections and working with engineers to figure out the best way to deal with interferences, while at the same time not delaying the construction to keep the project moving."
As some crews carefully moved, repaired and shored up utilities that provide service to residences and businesses in the area, other crews began constructing a decking system on Second Avenue — first along the avenue’s east side and then along the west side — between 92nd and 99th streets. The work was performed in halves in order to keep four lanes of traffic open on Second Avenue.
"By the time we completed that work, we basically had a fully decked-over bridge on Second Avenue between 92nd and 99th streets so that all traffic could travel on top of the roadway deck," says Gianfrancesco.
At the location of the 72nd and 86th Street stations, open-cut shafts were created where the tunnel boring machine would be staged to drill the underground caverns. Controlled blasting operations began in November 2009 at 96th Street and were used in the construction of all cavern excavations for the stations. Blasting work wrapped up by 2013.
MTACC built muck houses to contain the debris generated by the mining process until the dirt and rock could be hauled away by trucks within scheduled hours so as to minimize the impact on neighborhoods. Ultimately, workers excavated 583,600 cubic yards of rock and 460,300 cubic yards of soil for the subway’s first phase.
Infrastructure projects of any size are likely to hit at least a few unexpected barriers, and the Second Avenue Subway was no exception. One major setback occurred when tunneling operations were scheduled to begin on the eastern tunnel near the 96th Station location. A geotechnical contractor — assigned to check rock and soil conditions in advance to avoid mishaps during tunneling — discovered fractured rock where crews expected to find solid rock.
"We had to shift gears so as not to fall behind schedule," Gianfrancesco explains. "We shifted the tunnel boring machine so that we could start boring on the west tunnel. We needed to freeze the ground in the [east] area where we found the poor rock so that, once the ground was sufficiently frozen, it would mimic solid rock conditions when the tunnel machine passed through."
As crews shifted the tunneling operation to the west side, crews on the east side began the ground-freezing operation. The freezing process, which involved drilling holes and inserting 70-foot-long refrigeration tubes, took several months.
"It was an innovative solution and it worked pretty well," says Gianfrancesco. "We were able to mitigate the challenge without a delay in the schedule."
By the time the tunneling was finished, crews had utilized three methods of construction: tunnel boring, cut-and-cover and mining.
Another challenge for a project that stretched over so many years: meeting expectations of a revolving door of decision-makers at the MTA and city, state and federal levels.
"The political and economic climate was forever changing," says Covil.
As a result, the team had to remain flexible to adapt to evolving circumstances.
As the project wore on, MTA officials tried to remain engaged with Second Avenue neighborhoods. In July 2013, the agency opened the Second Avenue Subway Community Information Center (CIC), which served as a “one-stop-shop” of information for those most affected by the first phase of construction.Residents — as well as tourists interested in the Second Avenue Subway’s history and progress — could visit the center for "Transit Talks" and underground tours that provided a first-hand look at the construction.
Located at 1628 Second Ave., the CIC also was where New Yorkers could file complaints about construction noise, debris, lighting, the impact on garbage pickup and other problems upsetting their daily lives.
For instance, after angry residents complained about crews performing late-night dynamite blasting of underground bedrock, a new schedule was adopted to limit the explosions to certain daytime hours.
"That outreach — in which we brought in the community almost like an integrated team with us on the project — was something we had not done before," says Gianfrancesco. "It was an innovation that has become a gold standard for us moving forward."
Along those lines, the MTACC in late December 2016 awarded a $120 million contract to Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc. (now WSP) and STV Inc. for general engineering and design consultant services for the second phase. Also that month, the agency awarded a $2.3 million contract to AKRF Inc. to provide consulting services for potential changes to the Second Avenue Subway's environmental document.
In April, the agency awarded a $7.3 million contract to a joint venture known as East Harlem Community Collaborators, which will provide community outreach services for the Second Avenue Subway Phase 2. That contract includes grant funding from the Federal Transit Administration.
And in September, MTA held a grand opening for the new CIC on East 125th Street in East Harlem, which will serve neighborhoods affected by the next phase of subway construction.
The timeline and full funding for Phase 2 construction is less clear, however. MTA has allocated $1.7 billion in its 2015-2019 capital program to that phase, which will be built “over several MTA capital programs,” Gianfrancesco says. He doesn’t know when the remaining funding will be allocated, however.
Although Phase 2 isn’t yet set in stone, Gianfrancesco takes pride in the 2-mile line that is finally open and serving the transportation needs of New York City’s residents and visitors.
"For me, the impact that the Second Avenue Subway has had on the community and the transportation network is very rewarding," he says. "There are a lot of projects and tasks that we've done that have been satisfying, but a project of this scope and magnitude was something special."
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