The brilliance of freeway tunnels (part 1 of 2)A few weeks back, Gonzalo Camacho sent me an intimidating 30-page white paper on the tunnel option for expanding the I-45N corridor using some of the newest tunnel-boring technologies from Europe and elsewhere. It took me a while to get around to reading it, but in one fell swoop it converted me from skeptic to a true believer.
The essence of what makes it so compelling is that all of the money spent is for completely new capacity, since the existing surface 45 stays right where it is. Compare that to the current alternative being proposed, which, at the end of the day after $2+ billion is spent, only adds a net of 3 new lanes of capacity between downtown and Beltway 8 (from 8 + HOV to 8 + 4 managed lanes) - and that's after 5+ years of nightmare construction (vs. disruption-free underground tunneling).
On top of that, the tunnel can also solve several problems not addressed in the current plans, by continuing through downtown to 45S, 288, and 59 - bypassing the downtown bottlenecks at the Pierce Elevated and the 59-288 junction. Talk about killing several birds with one stone.
What we're talking about here is a congestion-priced, tolled set of express through-lanes that only have a few exits at major junctions. Local traffic stays on the surface freeway, which may evolve into a more sedate parkway over time, like Memorial or Allen Parkway (although I'm more skeptical of that ever happening - given the high demand and powerful commercial interests along that freeway).
The paper details how safety and flooding are handled, as well as a myriad of additional benefits: far faster construction, a substantially longer roadway life expectancy, and air, noise, and visual pollution reduction.
Raw cost is 50% more - about $3 billion instead of $2B - but when complete lifecycle costs are considered, it only works out to about 10% more per mile. And I don't think that considers any of the value in terms of time saved by drivers in both the construction and finished stages (the surface option is expected to get re-congested relatively sooner). The financials are well detailed, and summed up in a great table on p.26.
Tip to Gonzalo: re-calculate your costs in terms of $ per lane-mile of capacity - rather than per mile. Since your option adds so much additional capacity, it has to look much better that way (and be sure to include both the surface 45 and the new tunnels in the total lane-miles capacity denominator).
Gonzalo should be commended for his passion and dedication for a cause too many - myself included - have been too quick to dismiss. You can read the paper yourself here, or browse his web site here. And if you know any of the decision-makers involved, please voice your support or pass this along. It's just too good an opportunity for Houston to ignore.
In my next post, part 2, I'll discuss my own tunnel variant ideas and the long-term potential for tunneling in Houston.