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DARK JOURNEY TO GROUND ZERO

Martin Espinoza. Jersey Journal staff writer   April 25, 2002

While descending on foot down the long, neon-adorned escalator shaft of the Exchange Place PATH station in Jersey City, the sound of heavy construction began to break the silence that has gripped the station all these months since Sept. 11.

Shortly after 10 a.m. yesterday, The Jersey Journal and a television crew from "60 Minutes II" were the first media since the terror attacks to travel the entire length of the PATH tunnels that connected the World Trade Center with Exchange Place. It was a mole-like tour that started with the dark insides of the Exchange Place station and ended in the colossal sunlit "bathtub" at Ground Zero in Manhattan. Other media have been allowed to enter into the base of the tunnel from the Ground Zero side, but yesterday was the first time reporters were allowed to travel through the tube that runs beneath the Hudson River, Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman said.

At the bottom of the shaft, near the station platform, construction workers in white jumpsuits and hard hats were busy gutting the tubes that once shuttled thousands of commuters to and from the World Trade Center. In some places, it was beyond recognition, with dust, tools, sections of cable and sheets of worn plywood scattered everywhere.

A short walk down one of the tubes, toward the Grove Street station, workers were using a drill with a long bit - resembling a giant, mechanical mosquito - to pierce the tunnel's concrete casing, creating holes that will be used to pump in grouting to reinforce the tunnel for "controlled blasting."

By June 2003, Port Authority officials say, Exchange Place, once only a "through station" will be inaugurated as a terminal, like the PATH station in Hoboken. Six months later, a PATH station is expected to be opened to the public at the World Trade Center site.

The federal government recently earmarked $1.8 billion for restoring New York subway and PATH service, and officials say the new PATH line will tie in more seamlessly with mass transit on the New York side.

According to Mark Pagliettini, a Port Authority project manager, the work to restore the transit route between Exchange Place and Lower Manhattan is divided into three parts: work at the World Trade Center site, tunnel work beneath the Hudson River and the work to turn Exchange Place into a terminal station. Total cost is expected to be $544 million.

In order to transform Exchange Place into a terminal, the platform must be extended by 125 feet. Also, a system of crossover tracks, which will allow trains on the incoming track to switch over to the outgoing track, must be built. Pagliettini said the new track switches will be faster than existing PATH switches, shortening commuter wait periods.

The work to repair the tubes beneath the Hudson River will require completely gutting the tunnels of all their infrastructure, including electric cables, tracks, ballast, lighting and concrete from the lining that encases 320,000 feet of cables. The only thing that will remain intact will be the cast iron tube made of countless curved plates bolted together, an enduring structure that was built almost 100 years ago.

Most of the infrastructure that is to be replaced inside the cast iron tubes was damaged by the water used by New York City firefighters at Ground Zero. The constant flow of water eventually flooded the tubes completely. A concrete plug was placed at the end of the tubes at Exchange Place to prevent further water damage.

The first half of yesterday's tour was conducted on foot until about halfway across the Hudson River, with the sound of construction work at Exchange Place slowly being drowned out by the echo of footsteps. After the deepest section of tunnel was reached, the rest of the trip was made on the back of a flatbed truck. As the truck approached Ground Zero, the modest lighting inside the tunnel gave way to bright sunlight and a view of the devastation where the mezzanine of the World Trade Center's towers once served thousands of commuters.

After Sept. 11, the station of choice to get to work in Jersey City's Downtown financial district became the relatively small one at Grove Street. That station saw a 90 percent increase in ridership and now serves an average of 18,496 people per day, officials said. Commuters are anxious to see the devastation replaced with a fully operating PATH system.

New York City resident George Konidaris, operations manager at Deutsche Bank at Harborside in Jersey City, used to take the World Trade Center-Exchange Place PATH line to work. Now he goes to Grove Street and walks the rest of the way. "Altogether, it's about an extra 20 minutes," Konidaris said. "I expected them to do something with that stop, some kind of intermediate step."

Paramus resident Stacy Kardell, another Deutsche Bank employee, takes a commuter train to Hoboken and then PATH to Grove Street to get to work. She said her commute takes about 10 minutes longer because the Exchange Place station is closed.  "There's a lot more people down here," Kardell said, referring to Downtown Jersey City near Grove Street. "It's so crowded, there's too many people trying to get up and down the stairs."

A permanent, fully completed PATH station and transit hub in Lower Manhattan is still about five years off, Coleman said. But if everything goes as planned, the Exchange Place station could be returned to use in less than 18 months. Journal staff writer Jason Fink contributed to this report. 
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