June 16, 2005
More on the I-45 tunnel

The Houston Press has a nice article on the proposal by local engineer Gonzalo Camacho to redo I-45 from Greenspoint to downtown as a tunnel. What impressed me in this article is how successful Camacho has been at getting skeptics to consider his plan on its merits:

Some of those challenges have been lived out in other U.S. cities, such as Boston, with its infamous Big Dig, the $14.6 billion undertaking completed in 2003 that was plagued by numerous delays and thousands of change orders.

"Big Dig" were the first words out of the mouth of Bob Eury, executive director of the Downtown Management District, when he heard of the plan, Camacho says.

"A lot of folks compare this to the Big Dig, which is preposterous," Camacho says. But, then again, "If someone wants to drop $14 billion in your backyard, you take it."

Eury met with Camacho and [tunnel expert Gerhard] Sauer and was impressed with the concept. He guardedly suggested such a concept could play a role in the future of Houston transportation. "What we might have thought was totally out of the question might not be as out of the question, maybe," Eury said. "That does not necessarily mean it's feasible, but turning it the other way around, it means it's something that could be explored."

With an outside-the-box proposal like this, simply not getting thrown out of the office and labelled a crank is a big deal. It'll take a lot more than that to convince TxDOT, of course, but just getting people to think that maybe this sort of thing really could be done is important.

What would it take to make it happen?

In the last few months, Camacho has shopped the tunneling idea to folks at the Hines Corporation, Metro, the Houston-Galveston Area Council and HVJ Construction. But his support has grown most noticeably where it is most needed: in the political sphere. Councilman [Adrian] Garcia has met with Camacho several times and even arranged the meeting with [TxDOT engineer Gary] Trietsch. State Representative Jessica Farrar provided the forum in April for Camacho to make his first public presentation. And the most recent neighborhood meeting had an aide to U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee down front taking notes.

Though most agree the tunnel concept's chances are slim to none, no one is writing off an upset, either. "Things like this tend to get adopted when a visionary elected official takes an interest in it," [executive director of Harris County's Public Infrastructure Department Art] Story says. "It needs a champion."

So who knows?

One thing I want to add to this story:

There's a little something for everyone in Camacho's solution. Sinking a portion of I-45 into a tunnel eliminates the need for more right-of-way, the primary fear of frontline homeowners. A tunnel could be constructed faster than a typical highway and more cheaply than a depressed or stacked system -- though a traditional flatland expressway is still the cheapest. Eliminating on- and off-ramps would make driving safer. And air treatment would help clean the skies by removing up to 90 percent of the solids in tunnel exhaust.

When I first read that paragraph, I stumbled on the bit about "eliminating on- and off-ramps". Surely this wasn't envisioned as an express route to downtown, right? I emailed Camacho about this, and also about what would happen above ground to the existing businesses that line the service road to I-45. Here's his response (taken from two separate emails):

Eliminating on/off ramps means that the tunnels will be "limited access" meaning that the tunnels will not have as many on/off ramps. Therefore traffic will have a clear path for longer distances without having the interference of vehicles getting off and on the tunnel.


There are three segments along I-45 that have different environments: Downtown area, I-10 to 610 historic residential, and north of 610 which is commercial.

The basic idea is to turn the existing at-grade highway into a boulevard, two or three lanes in each direction which will provide as much access as there is now and probably at higher speeds. The design is fairly simple but complex to explain.

In any case, there could be three different design alternatives for the at-grade boulevard, depending on each area.

Cost is still a concern, and the pragmatist in me is kind of hoping for another, not quite as visionary, plan for TxDOT to consider in addition to this as an alternative its just-widen-the-heck-out-of-it approach, but I have to say, the more I hear about this concept the more I find to like. If you haven't already, check out the PowerPoint slide show on the tunnel (remember, it's 8.2 MB in size) and see what you think.

UPDATE: Sorry to post this so late, but the Art Official Intelligence show on 90.1 KPFT right now is talking about the tunnel, among other things. I'll try to see if I can find an archive to the show later on.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 16, 2005 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

Hmm... interesting stuff. I'll look at more of it when I get home, but I have two immediate quesitons:

1. Flooding? What are the chances this thing will experience the underpass phenomena that occurs about every two-three years?

2. Is there any consideration being given to making one lane for BRT/Express Bus for The Woodlands and Kuykendahl stations? Something like King County's tunnel bus?

Posted by: matth on June 16, 2005 1:37 PM

I don't think the flooding question can be answered with a straight face, what with 100 year rainfall events happening within 10 year time spans. There's no legitimate standard. By making the assumption that it will flood, we can move on to how flooding will be dealt with.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on June 16, 2005 6:10 PM

I often find it fascinating to learn the background of folks making comments on the tunnel concept. Sometimes it is like listening to a plumber talk about practicing medicine.

Not intending to insult any person on his/her comments but it just makes me wonder if people really think before they speak.

In an attempt to satisfy Charles Hixon curousity... I must write with a "straight face" that he should take a drive to pasadena and drive through the Wasburn Tunnel. I drove it the other day. And by the way, the Wasburn Tunnel has been around since the 50's if not mistaken.

Do you all think we still build tunnels like they did in the 50's or do you think some improvements have been made since?

Many major cities in the old world are building roadway tunnels. Is the US so far behind that cannot build a roadway tunnel?

Oh... TxDOT in Dallas is about to build a 2.5-mile roadway tunnel. Perhaps thinking out of the box is only applicable to some Houstonians?

Posted by: gonzalo camacho on July 17, 2005 3:33 PM