The construction of a new subaqueous Hudson River rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York – along with the rehabilitation of an existing Hudson River two-track rail tunnel – is expected to generate $19 billion in economic activity and create 72,000 direct and indirect jobs. Highly trained union workers have already begun early work related to the new tunnel, one of several headline-grabbing infrastructure endeavors that also include the Portal North Bridge in Kearny as well as South Jersey wind power projects (one of the wind projects alone is expected to yield $1.17 billion in economic impacts). As for the bridge and tunnel, they are both part of the Gateway Program, and completing them as soon as possible is arguably key to the economic success of the region’s future.
“We call [The Hudson tunnel project] the most urgent infrastructure project in the country, and there’s a reason for that,” explains Stephen Sigmund, chief of public outreach for the Gateway Development Commission, the entity overseeing the project’s development. “This is the only rail connection between New York, New Jersey and the rest of the Northeast Corridor – and at the Northeast Corridor’s busiest section, it [currently] gets down to one track [into New York City] and one track out.”
That limited opening can create problems. While the tunnel is still safe even after being inundated with millions of gallons of water during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, there are increasingly small failures and delays that adversely impact rail passengers’ everyday lives – as well as the regional and national economies – when trains cannot move between states. A major failure would have catastrophic consequences.
Hope is on the horizon: The new tunnel has a 2035 completion date, while the existing tunnel’s rehabilitation is expected to be completed in 2038. For one point that will connect the new main tunnel to Manhattan, construction workers are already on site and have made progress with the Hudson Yards Concrete Casing. President Biden visited in January to announced $292 million in federal grant money toward casing work (a proposed 2024 federal budget would include an additional $700 million towards tunnel work). Separately, bids have been put out for the New Jersey approach to the tunnel located at The Palisades’ western edge. Tunnel project components include utilities work, relocating rail tracks to the portal, excavation, and the actual tunnel bore, which will eventually start on the New Jersey side; the New York bore is a separate project.
“[Gateway Development Commission] has a robust plan in place to put bid packages out on the street,” explains Greg Lalevee, business manager at Springfield-based International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 825, whose union workers will use tunnel boring machines and other equipment to complete the project.
Not only can Local 825 supply labor, but it can smoothly coordinate with New York-based operating engineers, a feat Lalevee states is “easy,” adding: “Those of us involved have all been friends for more than 20 years.”
These “friends” have a massive task: Lalevee notes the tunnel projects will likely be 24-hour endeavors made possible because noise will be contained underground; odd work shifts and other factors will make it “harrowing” for construction crews.
Only select individuals can handle such demands. Lalevee says, “[Local 825] has already identified the men and women who can work subterranean, so we know beforehand that person ‘X’ or ‘Y’ is going to be able to handle the hours. There are novice workers [out there] who say, ‘This is great. I’m going on a multi-year job,’ and then three or four days later, they get the heebie-jeebies, and they have to get out.”
Lalevee highlights his workers’ expertise: “As operating engineers, when it comes to heavy equipment that builds projects like this, we are the most highly trained and experienced people in this space, and [the same thing] for the contractors when it comes to executing infrastructure projects.”
It is possible that overall staffing may not be a concern, because there is no shortage of people interested in the construction trades. Rob Lewandowski, a spokesperson for Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), broadly tells New Jersey Business Magazine that LIUNA has had massive numbers of people apply for apprenticeship programs. As for Gateway specifically, he says, “We’ve already got workers out there on the [tunnel] approach, and [they] will be [there] for probably several years.”
Workers are likewise busy at another large project: The aforementioned Portal North Bridge is a moveable swing span that entered service in 1910, and at times becomes stuck when opened/closed. A 5.5-year project that had an August 2023 groundbreaking is creating a new replacement bridge that will rise 50 feet above the Hackensack River, allowing vessels to easily traverse the waters beneath it. Lewandowski notes the $1.8 billion project supports about 30,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Other mega projects besides these Gateway Program components are also in the works. Jobs are being created at the New Jersey Wind Port in Alloways Creek, where contractors/construction workers are busy preparing that site to facilitate offshore wind turbines that will ultimately foster an updated state goal of producing 11,000 megawatts of clean offshore wind power by the year 2040. In the long-term, it’s anticipated the port will support up to 1,000 jobs and annually generate up to $500 million in new economic activity.
“Wind power project development has been a focus for union contractors in the region for some time,” explains Jack Kocsis, chief executive officer of Associated Construction Contractors of New Jersey, which represents general building contractors, construction managers, and heavy highway, site development and utility contractors that employ tens of thousands of union craftworkers. “Being that these complex renewable energy projects have multiple phases, the heavy civil aspects of preparing/marshaling sites are critically important and an active phase of the overall construction process.”
Related news: Atlantic Offshore Wind LLC signed a letter of intent in January with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority via which it will eventually lease 35 acres at the New Jersey Wind Port for use in marshaling the 1.5 gigawatt (GW) offshore wind project off the New Jersey coast being developed by Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind Project 1 LLC. That endeavor is expected to produce enough clean energy to power more than 700,000 homes and create 200 new jobs at the wind port
Of course, Ørsted Ocean Wind 1 and Ørsted Ocean Wind 2 are the much-heralded massive wind projects central to New Jersey’s wind power vision. The first project is slated for construction commencement this year and should have total economic impacts of $1.17 billion. Ocean Wind II is expected to create $4.8 billion in net economic benefits, with construction expected to start in 2028.
Given the attention surrounding these huge projects, it bears noting that construction workers are building countless other projects throughout New Jersey’s landscape. As ACCNJ’s Kocsis concludes, “While we recognize the needs these mega projects fulfill, and commend … highlighting them, we will continue to see the benefit and opportunities created by all public projects, large or small.”
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