Nearly five decades and $4 billion into the effort to build New York City’s Water Tunnel No. 3, the monumental project’s official end is not yet in sight. But the scope, pace and nature of city water infrastructure work ahead may be much different, and regional design and contracting firms already are steeling themselves for a new era.

The main stages of the massive boring operation that dug miles of tunnel deep underneath the city is largely complete—with major legs completed in 1998, 2001 and 2008—and upcoming tasks on Tunnel No. 3 are more geared toward connecting the system’s new capacity to a massive distribution network that brings in 1 billion gallons of fresh water per day. Today, $685 million in new work programmed in the New York City Dept. of Environmental Protection’s capital plans will mainly fund the construction of new shafts in Queens to bring water up from the tunnel depths to residents.

While more projects to build out the system are likely ahead, what remains unknown are the opportunities that the mostly complete Tunnel No. 3 may offer to step up long-awaited assessments of the condition of the city’s two older tunnels, opened in 1917 and 1936, and the repairs they may need.

The prospect of new work down the line is enticing but elusive for now, says Henry Kita, executive director of the Subcontractors Trade Association, a network of regional specialty contractors.

“We have heard from our members that the DEP work is drying up,” he says. “The anticipation for now from firms that have been working for [the agency] has been that project work is going to dwindle .... But if DEP were to go in the direction of maintenance and rehab work on the older tunnels, some of these same firms would want to get involved.”

For now, the industry will mainly focus on the two new shafts. Design support contracts are set to bid in late summer or early fall, and construction bidding would take place in 2018 or 2019, with work starting in 2020 and ending in 2025, a DEP spokesman says.

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Budgets and Priorities

A multi-decade infrastructure project by definition will span not just business cycles, but the political lives—and differing perspectives—of generations of city decision-makers. Tunnel No. 3’s long journey has in part been a tale of budgets delayed and work rescheduled, and sometimes of jobs given an extra boost.

Nearly all of those scenarios played out over the past year, as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration at first removed some planned work for Tunnel No. 3 from DEP’s short-range four-year capital program—seeming to reverse course from the aggressive goals of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. The priority reset in part responded to concerns that water rates had risen too much in recent years to fund DEP’s capital budget, says Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission. But the reset capital plans also aimed to give agencies a better chance to fully execute them, instead of having many projects “roll over” into future budgets, she says.

“From a watchdog’s perspective, it’s good to consistently fund infrastructure work in the budget process. On the other hand, that whole rolling mechanism … meant there was not a lot of transparency in the capital budget,” she says. “De Blasio’s administration was saying they wanted not to ‘right size’ the plan but ‘right time’ it so agencies would be more realistic about what work they could handle.”

That’s in part how Tunnel No. 3 work got pushed out, with DEP prioritizing some projects over others, said Vincent Sapienza, former deputy commissioner of the agency’s bureau of engineering, design and construction, during testimony at the New York State Assembly in February. He was named  DEP acting commissioner on June 30, replacing Emily Lloyd, who had temporarily stepped down in May for health reasons and who formally retired last month.

“The shafts, connections and activation [for the Brooklyn/Queens section] still have to be finished,” Sapienza said at the time. “This work has been deferred because the funding was re-allocated to another, more critical priority—specifically, the dam and dike strengthening of the Ashokan Reservoir. Our intent is to reinstate the funding for design and construction as other priorities shift.”

In April, The New York Times reported the priority change as a retreat from Bloomberg’s approach, causing a backlash,. The de Blasio administration soon revised its plans, with Steven Lawitts—who had stepped in as acting commissioner temporarily in May—unveiling a new DEP capital plan that includes $685 million for various Tunnel No. 3 design and construction efforts.

The citizens’ group has not taken a stand on the revised plans, although it is “a little bit skeptical” about the city meeting it new timeline, given other capital budget priorities de Blasio has set, particularly around improvements to public housing, Doulis says.

Shaft Work

The biggest chunk of funding in DEP’s capital plans —the more immediate four-year program and the longer-range 10-year budget—now will be for building the two shafts in Queens and installation of mechanical and electrical equipment. The capital plan moved the shaft work up by a year to start in 2020, Lawitts said.

The four-year plan maps out $357 million for site acquisition, design, excavation and construction of shafts 17B and 18B, the last two to connect the new tunnel to the Queens distribution network, as well as $300 million in the 10-year plan to install the new equipment. The shafts not only will boost local water supply in Queens, but also will allow a connection for Tunnel 3’s future Stage 4—a leg connecting the Bronx to Queens, the DEP spokesman says.

The main design challenge for the shafts centers on their larger diameter and use of bigger riser pipes than are typical for city water tunnels, the spokesman adds. Major construction tasks will include excavation through bedrock, concrete lining and installation of the equipment and operating and security systems. The mechanical and electrical installation work will mostly follow the shaft construction effort. The job will also require construction of new main trunk connections into the water system.

The engineering work, expected to bid this year, is likely to use a procurement model the agency applies frequently and with success, says Thomas Schoettle, senior vice president of CDM Smith and a vice chair of the New York chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies.

“This new contract … is probably going to be styled very much like [other projects where] they’re hiring consultants not to actually execute the entire project but to provide [DEP’s] in-house design group with technical support,” he says.

Indeed, a DEP presentation to consultants last month outlined $25 million to $40 million in contracts “to support in-house design” for the shafts and related work—including geotechnical, traffic management and engineering services.

DEP’s four-year capital budget also has two smaller Tunnel 3 projects. One, budgeted at $21 million, would be to disinfect and test the Brooklyn/Queens leg to bring it to “activation” status by the end of 2017. That would allow the city to tap it within 48 hours to back up Tunnel No. 2, the main line serving the two boroughs.

The project—which entails a disinfection procedure and installation of temporary treatment systems, piping, and controls—had originally been programmed to take place after the new shafts, but DEP’s plan to push out the tunnel work put a spotlight on how it would delay the tunnel’s “activation.” In the revised budget, the disinfection project actually leapfrogged the shaft work and now is set to take place as soon as DEP coordinates with other city agencies, including the health department, the spokesman says.

The other upcoming project, to cost $7 million, is for excavation, dewatering and pipe installation to construct a new connection between Tunnel No. 3’s Brooklyn/Queens leg and the Richmond Tunnel that serves Staten Island. Bidding is set to occur at year’s end, the spokesman says.

Tunnel Vision for the Future

Big items still well off in the future for Tunnel No. 3 include Stage 3, the Kensico-City Tunnel in Westchester County, which has already undergone facility planning, and Stage 4 connecting the Bronx to Queens. Neither appears in the DEP’s current 10-year capital plan.

Meanwhile, the broader justification for the long effort was always to “create redundancy to allow the city to inspect and repair City Water Tunnels Nos. 1 and 2 for the first time since they were put into service,” according to DEP’s website. The possibility of extensive rehabilitation and repairs could buoy regional design and construction forces but for now, it’s just an idea.

The initial phases to revisit Tunnels 1 and 2 involve “inspection and assessment,” and “future work will be informed by the results of the investigations,” the DEP spokesman says. There is no specific timeline set, however.

That leaves guesswork for industry professionals, Schoettle says. While it’s possible that years of wear and tear could have weakened the integrity of tunnels deep within the Manhattan schist, it’s more likely the most urgent repairs will be for aging mechanical systems, he says.

“It’s difficult for anybody to say,” he adds. “Nobody’s been in those tunnels.”