"We are making a contribution to the future that I believe are untold," New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine said.
The 8.8 mile-long fourth rail tunnel under the Hudson River will require the removal of 2 million cubic yards of rock and soil - roughly a third as much as the Hoover Dam - and will take eight years to build.
The new tunnel will speed the work commute from New Jersey to New York City by increasing the number of NJ Transit passenger trains passing under the river during peak rush hour from 23 to 48.
NJ Transit currently has only one two-rail tunnel, which it shares with Amtrak. The Path system, which operates commuter trains for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has two rail tunnels, each with two rails.
The new tunnel will add two more rail lines. None of the tunnels transports rail cars carrying freight.
"We really need more transit to the city, get some of the buses out of the tunnel. I think will just help everybody even if you don't take the train," said Andy Christmann, a New Jersey Transit passenger.
The big dig will cost an estimated eight point seven billion dollars, but at least 130 million dollars will come from the President's economic stimulus package.
"A hundred years from now our nation and the Northeast corridor will be a better place because of the decisions and actions we are taking today," Corzine said.
A tunnel boring machine longer than a football field will tear through the bedrock and silt as crews and sandhogs will work night and day deep underground.
The project will produce 56-hundred construction jobs and produce an estimated 44-thousand jobs in Manhattan upon completion in 2017.
The new tunnel will eventually double to capacity of trains coming into Manhattan and help ease overcrowding and cut down on delays.
"The tunnel would lead to a decrease of 124-thousand tons of green house gas emissions and decrease our dependence on oil from abroad," Senator Bob Menendez said.
The tunnel is the centerpiece of a project to expand the Penn Station transit hub in New York and fund track and signal improvements along the segment of NJ Transit's Northeast Corridor rail line between Newark and New York.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg said the project will make getting around Manhattan and northern New Jersey more manageable by taking cars off the road. Officials estimate it will remove 22,000 commuter vehicles from area roads and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 66,000 tons a year.
"We'll eliminate so many of the missed appointments, the delays in getting home and getting to work," Lautenberg said.
Opponents worry about the environmental impact of the tunnel and whether it's going to substantially increase the number of commuters who will select mass transit over driving.
Critics include the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, which says the tunnel concept fails to meet several objectives of the original proposal. Those include giving New Jersey rail commuters direct access to Grand Central Station on Manhattan's East Side and easy access to trains running on the Long Island Railroad.
"This project is more about looking like we're doing something than getting people where there need to go," said chapter Director Jeff Tittel.
Train riders say this is long overdue.
"I think it's a great expansion. It can only be beneficial for all the travelers that take the transit," Penney Robertson said.
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