Journeymen workers and apprentices are training on heavy equipment and cranes at the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 825 instructional center in Dayton, getting ready to build the biggest infrastructure project the state has seen in decades.
Greg Lalevee, business manager and general vice president of Local 825, explained that the trainees are mastering skills to construct the Hudson River railroad tunnels as part of a $14.3 billion Gateway transportation infrastructure project.
“From a pure economic development perspective, we want the Gateway project,” Lalevee said. “Construction is cyclical. We have had very good years for a number of years in a row. It does not necessarily always last and you cannot predict when it will end. But whether the [construction season] is very good or very bad, the Gateway project has a resume that stands on its own. Thirty percent of the nation’s gross domestic product goes through the Northeast Corridor. Thirteen percent of Manhattan’s workforce goes through the Hudson tunnels.”
The nonprofit Gateway Development Corp. is leading the $14.3 billion project to replace the 110-year-old Hudson River rail tunnels and the 110-year-old Portal Bridge, which spans the Hackensack River between Secaucus and Kearny. The bridge opens to allow ships to pass on the Hackensack River, but often gets stuck, delaying hundreds of thousands of commuters on trains from Washington, D.C., to Boston.
Gateway trustees say the project is being delayed because the federal government has not approved needed funds.
Lalevee looks forward to seeing the federal money start flowing. The spending would result in a major boost to local engineers, apprentices, and journeymen, he said.
In the meantime, the union is preparing its members to tackle work that is almost unimaginably complex. When the existing tunnels were built, the surrounding areas were not nearly as developed.
“We do not have the room to lay out a railway here,” Lalevee said of the IUOE property in Dayton. “We are going to rehab freight rail spurs. We have received specific grants for this project written into bid specs to facilitate apprentice training on this equipment.”
He added: “[t]hey came up with an execution schedule of how to move apprentices through and what machines are available. We accomplish two goals: the contractor makes money on the project and we have apprentices who are being trained on the rail equipment.”
Journeymen workers and apprentice builders are operating pile-drivers, cranes, steam rollers, and a tunnel-boring machine. A tunnel-boring machine will dig the new tunnels through the Hudson riverbed.
Apprentices are working on rail equipment underground in New York, Lalevee said. There is a water tunnel being dug under the Hudson River from Newburgh to Tarrytown in New York. That work is occurring 600 feet beneath the surface.
“It is hard to simulate that environment,” Lalevee said.
Safety is the priority to prevent accidents on highways and underground, he said.
“Our students are being taught by people in the paving industry,” Lalevee said. “They know what needs to be done on the job. They know what techniques need to be used, what expectations are, and what the dangers are. We make our students aware of even something as simple as spacing. You go by cones on an interstate highway. If all we have are cones to protect you from cars — that is the difference between you and dying. You get a distracted driver coming through, you are not aware of your spacing, and you step outside [the safe area].”
The training is funded through contributions from the International Union of Operating Engineers collective bargaining agreements, Lalevee said. Union members have dedicated part of their wage package to a training fund.
William Vaccaro, vice president of Local 825 International Union of Operating Engineers, is the director of training. Instructors are teaching drilling, milling, paving, foundation drilling, micro-pile drilling, forklift testing, welding, mechanics, excavation and GPS classes for bulldozer excavators and rovers.
The most challenging aspects of this training are trying to replicate the exact conditions in the natural environment, Vaccaro said.
“We do the best that we can to make the situations as real as possible,” Vaccaro said. “But sometimes we are confronted with rail projects. It is hard to replicate everything here.”
John Angelli is a third-year apprentice with Local 825. He is among more than 130 apprentices and journeymen doing the training.
“We are doing basic crane classes,” Angelli said. “It’s to give a basic understanding of how cranes work, how to operate them, load charts and how to set up the cranes in a safe manner.”
This class lasts for nine weeks. Angelli will take other classes.
“It will definitely make me more knowledgeable on the job about cranes and their usage of them,” Angelli said. “It will make me more marketable in the field. And I will have more overall talent on each piece [of equipment].”