Mayor Michael Bloomberg, center, turning a faucet together with Deputy...

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, center, turning a faucet together with Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway, left, and Commissioner for NYC DEP Carter Strickland (right) during the opening ceremony for City Water Tunnel No. 3 in front of City Hall Fountain in Manhattan. (Oct. 16, 2013) Credit: Agaton Strom

It's not something instantly visible like the Brooklyn Bridge or the Roman aqueducts -- massive public works that inspire oohs and aahs for generations.

But last week, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg turned a ceremonial valve and let water gush through a brand-new section of Water Tunnel No. 3, he proved that, no matter what you may have heard, government can still do the vital, costly, unglamorous work that makes our city hum.

Just don't expect blinding speed.

Water Tunnel No. 3 was conceived in 1954. Work began in the 1970s. Recessions came and went, mayors reigned and departed, children were born and had kids of their own, progress stopped and started.

But today Water Tunnel No. 3 is providing the city with an overdue backup for Water Tunnel No. 1, which opened in 1917 and hasn't taken a break since. The old tunnel is overdue for an inspection. So now, with the newest phase of Tunnel No. 3 in place, engineers can turn off the faucet and give No. 1 a look. The extension of the third water tunnel sharply reduces the city's reliance on an aging network.

The Bloomberg administration has poured about $2.7 billion into the project. But there's much more work to do, and the project is expected to total around $6 billion.

In real terms, though, the cost has been far greater.

The project has taken the lives of 24 "sandhogs" already -- people who specialize in the business of boring through Manhattan schist and other daunting obstacles.

Meanwhile, when finished, the third water tunnel will also provide a crucial backup for Water Tunnel No. 2 -- completed in 1935 -- running from the Bronx to Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

Great things can happen when governments plug away -- through thick and thin -- on well-planned public works projects. Vision counts for plenty.

That's something to remember as the MTA sketches out a full build-out of the Second Avenue subway to lower Manhattan and beyond, planners ponder a direct rail link from midtown to LaGuardia Airport, and the Port Authority weighs a connection from downtown to Newark Liberty Airport. We need to think smart. And the latest section of Water Tunnel No. 3 should inspire us to keep thinking big.

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