Restoring New York’s Crumbled PATH

Tue July 13, 2004 - Northeast Edition

Since it opened in 1908, the Port Authority Trans Hudson subway tunnel (PATH) has been a vital artery for thousands of commuters, connecting Jersey City and New York City. With stations at Exchange Street on the New Jersey side and the World Trade Center on the New York side, the PATH system was integral to joining the two cities.

In 2001, after operating faithfully for approximately a century, PATH had begun to look a little weathered. In addition, breakthroughs in transportation technology made the PATH lighting and signal systems obsolete. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey decided it was time for restoration of the entire line and scheduled a project start-up date for 2005.

With face-lift plans on hold for a few years, PATH remained a reliable means of transportation. Its systems, although outdated, still functioned as needed and commuters were easily transported without any major layovers or having to wait in long lines.

Everything changed on Sept. 11, 2001.

The attacks on Sept. 11, affected the entire nation, but New Yorkers undoubtedly took the largest hit. The fall of the twin towers permanently altered the city’s skyline, damaging several city blocks and leveling many surrounding buildings. Consequently, the World Trade Center PATH station was destroyed, sending mounds of debris into the tunnels and crippling the trans-Hudson commute.

In addition to the damage at the World Trade Center station, the tunnels suffered extensive flood damage from broken water and sewer lines and the vast amounts of water used to fight the fires at the World Trade Center.

The flooding damaged tracks, cables, electrical components and concrete from Ground Zero to Exchange Street. If the Port Authority had maintained its plan to wait until 2005 to begin restoration, the PATH tunnels would lie completely closed and unused for four years. Because one-third of all people working in lower Manhattan commuted from New Jersey and with 67,000 daily passengers passing through the World Trade Center station alone, waiting was not an option. Therefore, restoration plans were brought forward and cleanup crews mobilized almost immediately.

Once the debris was cleared and the water drained, transportation experts entered the tunnels to assess the damages. They determined that the only useable portions left of the tunnels were the iron ring liners, which became known as the famous “Hudson Tubes” at the time of their original construction. Everything else in both 1.5-mi. long tunnels, including tracks, signal systems and inner walls, needed to be demolished and hauled out.

Contractors from all over the city submitted bids for the PATH restoration project. Yonkers Tully Pegno, a joint venture of three contracting firms, submitted the lowest contractors’ fee bid of $16.7 million, more than $7 million less than the second lowest bid.

Yonkers Tully Pegno was awarded the job — an outstanding opportunity for the joint venture, but a difficult challenge as well.

Concrete walls of varying thickness encasing the entire length of both tunnels needed to be demolished and removed to make way for the new construction. However, space limitations and other extreme conditions restricted the methods crews could use to break through the concrete.

“We had a very narrow area to work in,” said Lou Marino, vice president of equipment operations of Yonkers Contracting. “Parts of the tunnel were only 12 feet wide.”

Manual labor would have taken too long and cost much more than the contractors or the Port Authority were willing to spend — not to mention the toll such intense physical labor would take on demolition crews.

In addition, equipment options were limited due to confined spaces, ventilation and maneuverability.

“It’s tough anytime you’re working in tunnels,” said Marino, “you can’t go down there with gas- or diesel-powered machines without proper ventilation.”

For what seemed like such a large problem, Marino knew the solution was simple. A piece of equipment that had been a part of the Yonkers fleet for 15 years would once again prove its value: the Brokk 330 compact demolition machine.

Dubbed the “Swedish Army Knife” of demolition equipment, the Brokk 330 operates several attachments by remote control, including clamshell buckets, grapples, crushers and shears, making them extremely versatile and efficient.

Additionally, because they’re electric and do not produce fumes, they have been favored for demolition in areas such as bank vaults, stair wells, elevator shafts and, in this case, subway tunnels. The Brokk’s compact size made it the right fit for the PATH restoration.

BCA Equipment, a sales and rental company, supplied the 10 Brokk machines used on the PATH project.

“The Brokk machine is the only one that could have replaced hand labor,” said Jim Brady, vice president of BCA equipment. “Because of its size, the 330 was much more agile than a larger machine in such a confined space. There is no other machine out there to match its performance in that situation.”

Known for precision in tight quarters, Brokk machines lived up to their reputation on the PATH project by breaking concrete almost directly above their position through the use of a custom breaker attachment, an impossible feat for a less maneuverable piece of equipment.

Manipulated via remote control, operators stood a safe distance away from falling debris. In addition, the Brokk machines were frequently hauled through the tunnels and operated on top of flatbed rail cars, a task not possible with a much heavier machine.

“We could have gone in there with a larger machine,” said Marino, “but we wouldn’t have had the room or the maneuverability we had with the Brokk.”

Utilizing breaker attachments, crews were able to cut through the concrete walls with minimal maintenance and maximum stability, even when operating on uneven surfaces.

“Because it was such a small space, it didn’t take long for debris to stack up,” said Brady. “The Brokks were still able to perform to their maximum capabilities while often times sitting on piles of debris.”

In addition to demolition functions, Brokk machines were equipped with a bucket attachment and utilized to removed debris from the site.

By replacing hand labor with Brokk demolition machines and attachments, crews were able to finish the PATH demolition phase by November 2002 — not only on budget, but also ahead of schedule.

“Without a doubt, Brokk equipment helped speed up the process,” said Brady. “The job was completed in approximately half the estimated time.”

With the demolition of the inner walls complete, the debris cleared out and new construction under way, the Port Authority anticipated an early re-opening of the PATH system.

Through the help of hundreds of laborers working around the clock, innovations in transportation technology and cutting edge Brokk demolition equipment, commuters reunited with familiar faces from across the Hudson sooner than expected.

A temporary PATH station was opened at the World Trade Center on Nov. 23, 2003, reconnecting Jersey City commuters to their Lower Manhattan co-workers one month ahead of schedule.

New York Gov. George E. Pataki and New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey marked the occasion by riding from the Exchange Street PATH station to the World Trade Center site on the same train that was the last to carry people to safety on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

“The re-opening of this station is a tribute to the countless people who have worked so hard since September 11, 2001, to rebuild the World Trade Center site, to restore Lower Manhattan and to honor the memories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Gov. Pataki at the ceremony.