Tunneling 2023: A Snapshot of the North American Tunneling Market

tunnel breakthrough

With an ever-increasing population, aging infrastructure and drive towards sustainability, the tunnel construction market in North America is primed for success in the coming years. Add the upcoming work to an existing slate of tunnels in the works, and the market remains on solid footing despite the lingering turmoil related to the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine that has touched just about every market across the globe.

According to the ITA Activity Report 2020-2021, the global tunneling market is approximately $135 billion per year with an annual growth rate of 9 percent – 2.5 times higher than the construction market at large. The report, however, tempers growth expectations for the period from 2022-2024 due to the impacts of the pandemic.

Additionally, funding – traditionally one of the biggest hurdles to implementing tunneling projects – is getting a boost from the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, which provides $66 billion in funding for rail across five years, including $8 billion for the Gateway program; as well as funding for water and wastewater projects, including CSO programs.

Another positive development has been the increase in ridership on public transportation networks. The American Public Transportation Association in its 4Q 2022 report showed that ridership across all modes of public transportation increased by 28.6 percent in the United States and by 52.8 percent in Canada vs. the previous year, helping build the business case for investment in further transportation infrastructure spending.

Looking back, the industry marked the completion of several high-profile projects during 2022, most notably the East Side Access project in New York City. Additionally, we saw the re-emergence of the Gateway Program, which includes the long-awaited construction of new tubes under the Hudson River to increase capacity and redundancy along one of the nation’s most congested corridors. Outside of New York, transit expansion works are being planned in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, and Dallas in the United States, and Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal in Canada.


While it is easy to look ahead and upcoming projects, it is important to celebrate the recently completed projects, years – sometimes decades – in the making. We recently saw the opening of three major underground projects that are now fulfilling their role in improving transportation in our crowded cities.
Perhaps most notably was the opening of Grand Central Madison in New York City. Service on Grand Central Madison – known as the East Side Access during its planning and development – began on Jan. 25 after nearly 20 years in construction.

The project – estimated to cost $11 billion – began construction in 2006 with major excavation completed in 2014. With its opening, it is expected to increase capacity on the Long Island Rail Road by 41 percent by adding approximately 275 trains each weekday. Before its opening, LIRR commuters would need to travel to Penn Station on the west and transfer, so the project is expected to save up to 40 minutes of commute time.

The project involved more than 8 miles of tunnels in Manhattan and Queens in addition to construction of a new 700,000 sq ft terminal underneath the existing Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan. This marks the first expansion of the LIRR in 100 years.

Elsewhere transit projects opened to commuters in San Francisco and Los Angeles. On Oct. 7, 2022, the Crenshaw/LAX project (K Line) for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority opened to the public, extending from E Line at Expo/Crenshaw Station and merging with C Line at Aviation/LAX Station. While the alignment includes aerial and at-grade, the K Line includes twin 1-mile tunnels built by Walsh/Shea JV between 2016 and 2017, and three underground stations.

The Crenshaw/LAX project was the first of Metro’s latest round of transit expansion, with the Regional Connector project nearing its service debut. The Regional Connector was underground testing as of April with service expected later this year.

On Jan. 7, San Francisco’s Central Subway began full service (initial opening occurred Nov. 19, 2022), extending SFMTA’s Metro T Third Line and marking the first new subway in the city in 40 years. Tunneling was completed on the project in 2014, followed by the construction of three new underground stations.

Current Project Highlights

Several major projects are in the construction or startup phases that represent the breadth and capabilities of the tunneling market in North America. Perhaps most notable of the projects is the long-discussed Gateway Program in the New York metropolitan area. As mentioned, the Gateway program includes the construction of two new tunnels – about 2.5 miles long each – under the Hudson to increase capacity and provide redundancy for the century old existing tunnels linking New York and New Jersey. According to recent reports, the tunnel part of the program is scheduled to commence work in 2024. Of note, this contract will be delivered by design-build.

The Gateway program is an integral link along the Northeast Corridor stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C. The Northeast Corridor is the most heavily used passenger rail line in the United States supporting more than 2,000 trains and 800,000 passengers daily. The importance of building redundancy was highlighted in 2012 when water flooded the existing tunnels during Superstorm Sandy, furthering the need to rehabilitate those structures.

On the other side of the country, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is has begun Stage 1 of its progressive design-build project to construct the six-mile, four station BART Silicon Valley Phase II project. Stage 1 activities are anticipated to occur from May 2022 through approximately December 2023, setting the stage for major construction (Stage 2) which includes boring the tunnel under downtown San Jose. The use of the progressive design-build contract delivery marks a growing trend in the U.S. market. Additionally, and perhaps most notably, the project will use a single, large-diameter TBM (~45 ft in diameter) to build a single tunnel to house bi-directional traffic vs. twin running tunnels which have been typical for subway construction in the United States.

In Virginia, two highway projects are underway using TBMs to bore new subaqueous tunnels – $755 million Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Commission’s Parallel Thimble Shoal Tunnel and the Virginia Department of Transportation’s $3.8 billion Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel project.

Both projects involve constructing a TBM-bored tunnel under shipping lanes via two artificial islands. The HRBT project is only the highway project in the United States to be built with a TBM (behind Seattle SR 99, Port of Miami Tunnel and the Thimble Shoal project), and represents the second largest TBM used to date in the country (behind SR 99).

In addition to transportation projects, several regions continue to build CSO tunnels, notably in St. Louis, Cleveland and Toronto, with upcoming works in Pittsburgh.

According to the North American Tunnel Market report developed by Wirthlin Consulting Group and published in TBM, there are more than 30 North American projects in the feasibility, bidding or detailed design phase scheduled to bid by the end of 2024, representing more than 500,000 ft of tunnel to be constructed across all segments of the industry.

While challenges exist – finding sustainable means of paying for large-scale infrastructure programs, a shortage of skilled workers that was present even before the pandemic, and lingering supply chain issues due to global conditions among them – the tunnel market stands poised to exhibit continued growth in North America for the foreseeable future.

2022 Tunnel Watch List

The Tunnel Watch List was developed by UCA of SME to highlight the most important tunneling and underground construction projects in the United States. Developed by a committee based on national and regional needs, as well as social, environmental and economic impacts. Below is the 2022 Watch List:

2022 Tunnel Watch List

Jim Rush is editor/publisher of TBM.

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