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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

East Side Access, the ‘stealth project’ deep under NYC

Workers underground in a section of the LIRR's

Workers underground in a section of the LIRR's East Side Access project. Photo Credit: Newsday / Randi F. Marshall

Around 1,800 workers are currently involved in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s East Side Access project.

The project straddles two boroughs, with the East River between them. It has seen some 2,500 explosions far below Grand Central Terminal and the excavation of more than 2 million tons of material. But if you’re civil engineer Michael Pujdak, who has worked on East Side Access in various forms since 2002, you call all this a “stealth project.”

The much-discussed and deplored parts of East Side Access include its $11-billion-plus pricetag, failures of planning and management and more than a decade of delays. But with much of the heavy work done, it’s worth noting the scope of what has finally been carved underground with relatively little public notice or disruption — a point of rueful pride to engineers like Pujdak.

The Glen Head resident and Long Island native, an East Side Access program manager and vice president for construction-and-engineering behemoth Aecom, has been on the project longer than some of its top executives. He has overseen tunneling through Manhattan, among other project tasks, with years of his working life devoted to bringing LIRR service to Grand Central. Still, Pujdak, the father of two young sons, says that even his family has never gotten a full sense of what he and his colleagues are building. From time to time, he’d show them a picture to emphasize the scale.

But that scale, and the complications that go with it, is becoming apparent. The motto might have been: Nothing comes easy.

To dig tunnels under Manhattan, for example, you need a boring machine whose full length and equipment stretch some 400 feet. You can’t exactly drop one underground from the Upper East Side. Instead, a hidden “assembly chamber” had to be blasted under Second Avenue. Pieces of the huge machine were fed down an access shaft in Queens. The pieces were brought under the river via a decades-old, never-used tunnel, then reassembled in Manhattan to start the slow drive forward. And because there was no way to empty excavated material such as Manhattan schist in the city center, miles of conveyor belts were built to carry the stuff back through Queens.

Or think about those 2,500 explosions below Grand Central. Permits to trek explosive materials had to be secured, and at some points, workers weren’t allowed to store the materials underground. Logistics are a nightmare in an underground world where every time workers blast or “take a shot,” Pujdak says, they have to wait around 30 minutes to let the smoke clear.

Pujdak previously worked on the AirTrain to Kennedy Airport, not exactly simple construction. But that project paled in comparison for the simple reason that workers could build from both sides. Underground, they could only dig in one direction.

Walking and golf-carting through the construction zone with Newsday’s editorial board, Pujdak passed plenty of his handiwork from years past. Under Grand Central, the rail tunnels open up to platforms and giant escalators. Someday, it all will be used by commuters who will pay little mind to the tons of rock and earth that had to be moved. It could be that Pujdak will be among those commuters. He rides the LIRR when he can and says the new service will help him.

But by then, he’ll be on to the next big project. Stealthily.

Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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