New Jersey Starts Its Own Big Dig

Guest host Alison Stewart talks with Richard Sarles, executive director of New Jersey Transit, about the new Mass Transit Tunnel project that is underway. The rail tunnel will run under the Hudson River to connect New Jersey and New York City.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

What could become the largest mass transit project in the country, officially launched this month - ground was broken on a new rail line that will run from New Jersey, under the Hudson River, and into Manhattan. The project's current price tag is $8.7 billion. It's now called the Mass Transit Tunnel and for details, we turn to Richard Sorrels, executive director of New Jersey Transit. He joins us from member station WBGO in Newark.

Welcome, sir.

Mr. RICHARD SORRELS (New Jersey Transit): It's good to be here.

STEWART: Can you explain to folks why there is a need for a new mass transit tunnel?

Mr. SORRELS: Yes. Today we basically have traffic congestion on our railroad between New Jersey and New York. We cannot fit any more trains through the tunnels. We're at the maximum capacity. There's a train every two and a half minutes going into New York, carrying a thousand people on each train. So by building this Mass Transit Tunnel, we will go from about 24 trains an hour going into New York to about 48 trains an hour. And that will allow an increase of over 100,000 passengers a day into New York City from New Jersey and suburban New York counties.

STEWART: The project sounds like a huge undertaking when it comes to engineering. What's it going to take to actually build this tunnel under the Hudson River?

Mr. SORRELS: Well, there's a lot of tunnels have to be bored. We will bore through very hard rock under the Palisades in New Jersey. And then there will be separate tunnels bored under the Hudson River through silt and clay and that sort of thing, and then into Manhattan, into hard granite. And once in Manhattan we have to create an extension of the existing Penn Station underground and we have to mine out the rock in order to create that station, which will have additional tracks and platform areas for the people to board and unload from the trains.

STEWART: Can you describe the kind of equipment that will be necessary for a project like this?

Mr. SORRELS: The actual boring machines for the tunnel, they're about a length of a football field. And they actually, if you're a rock, they have cutter heads on the front of them and they cut through the rock and bring the rock back through the machine. And then it'll go out on, you know, railroad carts or on a conveyor system.

And when you're underneath the river in silt, you have a tunnel boring machine again, but it has different type of head on it. It's under air pressure, and that, again, takes the silt and the mud out. So that's one of the biggest pieces of technology.

STEWART: Let's talk about that price tag for a minute. Is any of the money for this coming from the president's stimulus package?

Mr. SORRELS: Yes, about $130 million is coming out of the president's stimulus package. And in fact that funding allowed us to award the first contract on the project earlier this month and start construction.

STEWART: Where's the rest of the money coming from?

Mr. SORRELS: A variety of sources. Federal government supplies about $3 billion under the New Starts funding. In addition to that, we have about $3 billion from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is our partner on this project. And the remaining $2.7 billion comes out of sources available to the State of New Jersey.

STEWART: There was so much controversy over the Big Dig, that highway tunnel project in Boston that took so long, went so over budget, had leaks, construction flaws. How will you be trying to avoid some of those problems with this project?

Mr. SORRELS: Well, first of all, we brought some of the best engineers from around the world who have worked on tunnel projects, whether in Asia or in Europe, to this project, to make sure we engineer it right and to make sure that we have the best design. Certainly we have, our staff has reviewed the reports that came out of the Big Dig Project so that we have the lessons learned from that, in terms of project controls.

I will also point out that both New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority are experienced in building multi-billion dollar projects. This is not the first one for either of us.

STEWART: When is the tunnel expected to be done?

Mr. SORRELS: Well, about 2017. A lot of tunnels to be bored in the meantime.

STEWART: I'll see you there. I take New Jersey Transit all the time.

Mr. SORRELS: Great.

STEWART: Richard Sorrels is executive director of New Jersey Transit. He joined us from member station WBGO in Newark to talk about the Mass Transit Tunnel Project from New Jersey to New York City.

Thanks for being with us, sir.

Mr. SORRELS: It was a pleasure and look forward to seeing you on one of our trains.

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