This idea needs a dirt nap

Oct. 4, 2018

Officials in Hartford, Conn., consider tunnel project

Heading straight toward the new millennium, I found out I had a crazy uncle. It was then when I should have wired him for a lie-detector test.

The fear as the clocks, calendars, software, etc., clicked over to “00” was everything in the electronic/digital family would not know what to do, which in turn would pull the one piece that would send security walls tumbling like a late game of Jenga. Bank accounts were at the top of this doomsday list, and my uncle was seriously considering pulling all of his money and burying it in his backyard. I’m not making this up, but thinking back I do wish I would have pressed him into giving up the exact location of all that dough. OK, I’m making that part up.

The city of Hartford, Conn., is looking at dropping cash into the underworld, or as I would like to call it, the Upside Down (google Stranger Things) of the road and bridge industry. It’s a place where nightmares go to roost. The I-84 and I-91 interchange is in need of congestion relief, and one of the thoughts is to tunnel portions of both interstates. The best part is U.S. Rep. John Larson is playing the role of the crazy uncle. Larson believes he can convince the federal government to pay for most of it, and estimates are putting this project in the $10 billion-$50 billion range. We are talking a ton of 00s.

Now, Connecticut is a neighbor of the state of New York, so it can probably see the orange glow of destruction involving the Hudson Tunnel project. There, officials thought the federal government was going to help fund perhaps one of the most economically important tunnels in the U.S. So far their extended hand has been slapped with nothing but air.

I like part of the idea of putting roads underground, especially when the acreage above is turned into a park or something else that a city or community really needs. However, I also do not know why planners choose to consider these financial black holes known as tunnel projects. Hartford brought in officials from the S.R. 99 tunnel project in Seattle for a public forum in late September. By taking down the rickety Alaskan Way Viaduct, Alaskan Way (an actual street) has been moved to the waterfront. That’s a positive. Don’t let that fool you. The project, ranked No. 3 on our 2018 Top 10 Roads list, involved a tunnel boring machine that turned into a demogorgon (just binge watch Stranger Things), delaying the project for months after it froze, running up the total cost. Another example Connecticut can connect with is Boston’s Big Dig. This tunnel expedition is perhaps the worst in U.S. history, and even caused a fatality when the crews were long gone.

Still, those who make the big decisions are still bonkers about tunnels, and I get it. What you can do above is extraordinary, but the price comes with a ton of those extra 00s. Officials believe the tunnel will come with a boost to the local economy. Seattle claims within eight square blocks of the viaduct more than $1 billion has been invested in the buying and renovating of properties. However, since this project currently does not include any access to local streets (the tunnel could only be used for through traffic), that could bury any hopes of a safe return on investment.

A tunnel is one of six options Hartford is looking at for its I-84/I-91 dilemma. With 00 chance of federal support, take it off the list. Don’t do anything crazy.

About The Author: Wilson is editorial director of Roads & Bridges.