Can You Dig It? Or Should You?

Orange County, Calif., boasts a job-rich environment while Riverside County offers more affordable housing. There is one major artery, Highway 91, between the two counties and the traffic is horrendous. Some commuters can spend an hour and a half to travel six miles, and this will surely get worse.

Highway 91 now carries an estimated 280,000 cars a day and that could increase to 480,000 by 2030. The only alternative is Highway 74, a windy two-lane. To relieve this traffic burden, some want to bore a 10-12 mile "Tri-Tunnel Express," under the Santa Ana mountains. Physically, such a project is within the realm of possibility.

In 2000, Norway opened the15-mile Laerdal tunnel, which helps motorists avoid rugged mountains. The proposed California dig would be the second longest in the world and the longest underground highway in the United States. The question is whether it is worth the time, danger, and expense, all of which would certainly outstrip estimates.

Official estimates of the Tri-Tunnel Express came in at $3 billion to $3.5 billion. Private estimates run about double but surely far short of the final tab. Consider the "Big Dig," the Central Artery/Tunnel project in Massachusetts, covering only 3.5 miles.

Originally pegged at $2.5 billion, the Big Dig cost a full $15.8 billion. The project "would have attracted virtually no support if its ultimate costs to Massachusetts had been known at the outset," say Alan Altshuler and David Luberoff of the Kennedy School’s Taubman center for State and Local Government, and authors of Mega-Projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Investment.

The authors raise another key issue in a 2003 Boston Globe article, "Big Dig Projects: Are They Worth It?"

"More generally," they explain, "it seems true that when state and local taxpayers expect that outside benefactors — whether higher-level governments or merely visitors from other jurisdictions — will cover most project costs, they pay little attention to the question of whether benefits and costs are commensurate."

The intervention of federal funds for the Tri-Tunnel may thus add to the expense problem, the illusion that someone else will pay for it. Costs are also guaranteed to be as high as possible because of laws requiring union labor on public works projects.

Though costly and slow, nearly 20 years in the making, Boston’s Big Dig did not have to reckon with earthquakes. These are such a problem in Southern California that a two-deck highway was rejected as too dangerous. The Elsinore Fault, one of Southern California’s most active, crosses a proposed highway route east of the Santa Ana mountains. There, about a century ago, there was an earthquake of 6.0 strength. In 1995, tunnels near Kobe, Japan, sustained damage in an earthquake. There is also the issue of ground water.

According to some indications, ground water in the Santa Ana mountains is at high levels. If water leaks into the tunnel it would affect safety — remember this proposed tunnel is 10-12 miles long — increase costs, and threaten the water supply of the forest and vegetation above. There is no guarantee that tunnels will be leak-proof.

In September of 2001, a leak sprayed 70,000 gallons a minute into Boston’s Big Dig. The water, which came from below the tunnel, inundated machinery and shut down construction for weeks. This leak alone cost $41 million. The proposed Big Dig in Orange County includes plans for a water tunnel. Fire is also an issue.

In March of 1999, a truck caught fire in the 7.25-mile Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy. Forty-one people died, and all but seven of them remained in their cars. The Mont Blanc tunnel was designed to handle 450,000 vehicles a year. By 1997 it was carrying 1.1 million vehicles.

The Tri-Tunnel, like area highways, would surely surpass original traffic estimates. That, plus the level of casualties in the 1999 fire, raises the issue of terrorism. If someone wanted to kill many people in a hurry, the tunnel would be an ideal place.

Advocates of the Tri-Tunnel say it would help air quality by including scrubbers. But this feature may not be worth the extra $50 million. According to the EPA volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from cars and trucks declined by 73.8% since 1970 and carbon monoxide emissions from cars are down 64%. During this time the total number of cars and trucks in the United States more than doubled, and the total miles driven increased 181 %. Both the California Air Resources Board and the EPA forecast that emissions from autos will fall another 75% to 80% from current levels.

The proposed Tri-Tunnel raises other issues, such as where to put the vast amounts of earth dug out of the mountains. Given the problems, dangers and costs, all certain to surpass original estimates, it would be better to abandon this project. There are better ways to alleviate the traffic problem.

Highways 91 and 74 could be widened, and perhaps new highways built, above ground. Politicians could focus their energy on job creation in Riverside County by reducing taxes and regulations. Similar moves in Orange County could reduce the cost of housing there, helping people to live where they work. Firms could also encourage telecommuting.

California is good at massive public-works projects but doesn’t need a Boston-style boondoggle. The Golden State does have room for a big dig of sorts to help alleviate another ongoing problem. A better venue would be the Peripheral Canal to bring water from northern California to the arid south.