Top Stories of 2017

The end of each year not only gives us a chance to look forward to the challenges and opportunities of the coming year, but also a time to reflect on the previous 12 months (as we wonder, often aloud, how the time passed so quickly!). 2017 proved to be another eventful year in the tunneling market, with its share of big events, as well as continuing trends that are shaping the way we do business.
Leafing through 2017 issues of TBM, here are what struck me as the top stories:

Bertha Breaks Through – The entire industry was following this story from the time it was announced that the new SR 99 tunnel was to be built with a record-breaking 57.5-ft diameter machine (dubbed “Bertha”). In fact, interest in the tunnel went back to the planning process due to the debate regarding whether a tunnel would be built vs. a replacement viaduct. Of course, tunneling – specifically a large-bore tunnel – was chosen. The size of the machine was a notable step up from previous large-bore TBM tunnels completed in Europe and Asia (in the range of 50-ft diameter), and more than 15-ft diameter larger than the Port of Miami Tunnel TBM, which had been the largest machine to complete a tunnel in the United States. After boring 1,000 ft upon its launch, Bertha stalled in December 2013, leading to a two-year stoppage while crews built a rescue shaft and repaired the TBM. With all eyes on the project, Bertha was able to resume mining and successfully complete the tunnel, breaking through in April 2017. Crews are now busy installing the roadway with the tunnel to open to traffic in early 2019. When complete, the tunnel will give Seattle residents an improved waterfront and quality of life for the next century and more.

China’s Increasing Presence – The role of China in the global tunneling market has been increasing exponentially over the last decade or more, so the trend is not new. But it was interesting to note that in 2017, two TBM manufacturers announced increased operations in China. In January, Australia-based Terratec marked the opening of a large-diameter manufacturing facility in Guangzhou, while Toronto-based Lovsuns announced that all manufacturing would be shifted to its parent company’s (LNSS) facility in Liaoning City. Those moves come on the heels of the 2016 acquisition of The Robbins Company by Northern Heavy Industries (NHI), based in Liaoning province. In mid-2017, Lovsuns announced that it would deliver the first Chinese-built TBM to the U.S. market for the construction of the Blacksnake Creek project in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Acquisitions in the Engineering Sector – Over the past several years we have seen some major acquisitions of engineering firms, with the most recent being the August 2017 announcement that Jacobs Engineering had reached an agreement to acquire CH2M, giving Jacobs added capacity in the water sector. The deal involves some 74,000 employees worldwide. In previous years we saw mergers and acquisitions involving Stantec and MWH (2016), AECOM and URS (2014), WSP and PB (2014), and COWI and Jenny (2012).

Increased Visibility – As I noted in this space last issue, tunnel projects are becoming more and more visible in the public eye. In the past, megaprojects certainly captured the public’s attention (Channel Tunnel, Big Dig, SR 99) but now even smaller projects are the focus of PR campaigns. Locally, Akron’s $184 million Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel hosted an open house that attracted a throng of residents curious to see the TBM. Newsmaker and entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Boring Company is also popping up in various outlets on a regular basis, helping to increase attention on tunnel construction and infrastructure needs.

Larger Contract Values – This is another trend that has been evolving over the last several years. 2017 saw the awarding of the $580 million Northeast Boundary Tunnel for DC Water (awarded to Salini Impregilo/S.A. Healy – believed to be the largest sewer tunnel project awarded in the U.S. Also in 2017, LA Metro awarded a $1.37 billion contract to Tutor Perini.O&G for the construction of the Purple Line Extension, Section 2. The trend is likely to continue with projects including Gateway, Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 and the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel Expansion looming.

Did we miss anything? What would you add to the list? We are always happy to share your views and comments.

I hope that everyone has a wonderful holiday season, and I look forward to 2018, which promises to be another eventful year in tunneling.

Jim Rush

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