"MamaJo" Tunnel Project Making Progress, Slowly But Surely

Aug 7, 2019

One year ago today, a tunnel boring machine -- rented by the city and affectionately named “MamaJo” by its residents -- was given her name, and in February began an 18-month journey digging a five-mile tunnel in an effort to improve the quality of the city’s rivers.

At the completion of the Three Rivers Protection and Overflow Reduction Tunnel, officials hope to see a 90 percent reduction in the amount of combined sewer overflow going into the rivers, more than 850 billion gallons.

220 feet below the surface, a construction team is hard at work ensuring Fort Wayne’s $188 million project comes together as smoothly and quickly as possible.

It’s a swampy space -- loud from drills and other machinery working in the background, damp to the point of requiring rubber boots to get around. But in this space over the last year, crews and the massive tunnel boring machine “MamaJo” have made significant progress on what will be the most expensive public works plan in Fort Wayne’s history.

The pathway set by MamaJo is 16 feet in diameter.

Project manager T.J. Short led a tour of reporters through the tunnel to its show the current state of the dig. For as much activity that’s taking place quite possibly below your neighborhood, he said you’d never be able to know it.

“I know a lot of people had the fear, ‘They’re tunneling near or under my house or business.’ And what they’re finding out -- or what they will find out -- is there’s really no effect when you’re down that deep, 220 feet,” Short said.

Short walked us about a quarter-mile down a thin, metal walkway to one of the workspaces, where the temperature gradually got warmer and the machinery got louder. He showcased the process of moving rocks from the tunnel and for MamaJo to move forward -- the machine digs at an agonizing five feet-per-hour.

The resources of the dig have been as massive as the scope of the project itself; Short says nearly 4,000 individuals have chipped in on various aspects, and 5,000 pounds of rock have been moved from the site thus far.

City utilities spokesman Frank Suarez says MamaJo has tunneled through a quarter mile of its five-mile goal, but emphasized the dig was always going to take a long time and that neighbors could be affected by exterior work.

“Everybody wants to go faster, we all want it to be done, and certainly we understand that the pump shafts that’s going on in the neighborhoods are an intrusion on those neighborhoods, but we also understand the neighborhoods do value what’s going to happen for their protection,” Suarez says.

Still, he says the effort is a response to the City of Fort Wayne “turning its back” on the rivers for a long time, and trying to fix that mistake.

“We see a lot of people out on the river. We see people kayaking, we see people walking on the trails along the rivers. People like the rivers, they’re eating along the rivers as we see with some of our restaurants, and we have a new park that’s opening up,” he said.

“So certainly, we understand that people really do want to embrace the rivers and want them as part of the community.”

Work is on schedule, and all work on the Three Rivers Protection and Overflow Reduction Tunnel is expected to conclude by 2023.