Digging It
Tunnels are a rare bird in Houston. But will they fly for I-45?
By Greg Harman
Published: Thursday, June 16, 2005

Gonzalo Camacho's "tunnel vision" is enjoying the support of neighborhood groups and getting some needed political attention.

Daniel Krame


Tempers flaring and dark exhaust steaming, life on Houston highways is no easy road. Cars and cargo lunge about as the orange-cone crews struggle to clear wrecks and shield construction debris. It's a headache for both those lost in the mix and those living on the sidelines. While thousands each day try to curse it away, one man has a plan to drive the beast underground for good.

Gonzalo Camacho's pitch is a world of subtlety. The 41-year-old transportation engineer is handsome and soft-spoken. He smiles easily. Tossed a tough question about his dream of burying 14 miles of Interstate 45 beneath downtown, he just laughs and steers the show back on track. "I'd be glad to talk with you after the meeting," he tells a member of the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association who has dwelt too long on the topic of potential conflicts over mineral rights.

Gathered here at the MECA performing arts center just north of downtown is perhaps the most sympathetic audience Camacho could hope for. Folks in the Sixth Ward have teetered on seat-edge for years awaiting plans to upgrade, reroute or rebuild I-45 through their neighborhoods. Little more than the stroke of a pen will determine if businesses are wrecked and homes leveled.

Last fall, Camacho stumbled upon international tunneling expert Gerhard Sauer giving a talk in Houston to city transportation engineers. The two got to talking. Sauer wanted to know what opportunities there might be for tunnels in Houston; Camacho immediately thought of I-45.

"There's been talk about tunnels all the time, so I just said, 'Can we do it under I-45?' " recalls Camacho. "He didn't think twice about it. He said, 'Yeah, certainly. I just have to know a little more about the soil conditions.' "

Camacho left his job doing highway and public works projects with Turner Collie & Braden five years ago to go into private practice because, he says, he likes to "think freely." That freedom eventually channeled into tunnels. When not addressing Main Street groups in West Texas or designing traffic lights closer to home, Camacho is busy showcasing his vision for I-45 and networking with those who have the skills to usher it along. While it won't make him rich (Camacho doesn't have the experience to lead a project of this scale, and others would be brought in to do the heavy lifting), he says it would be an immense educational opportunity.

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.

If all that doesn't sway you, just wait for the colorful PowerPoint presentation. Simply stated: Tunnels look cool. And if you're in the development game, think of those wide swaths of rubble that will need to be transformed after I-45 disappears underground.

Though they smack of novelty, tunnels aren't new to East Texas -- just rare. Harris County became home to the state's only functioning tunnel when the Washburn was run beneath the Houston Ship Channel back in 1950. Then there are miles of underground pedestrian shopping lanes under downtown. While Tropical Storm Allison damaged the downtown passageways, massive tunnels have been built all over the world to withstand the force of water, moving beneath lakes and seafloors without a hitch.

So why couldn't Houston take the low road?

It was late October, and Jim Weston was at yet another meeting about the North Freeway expansion. As a resident of Woodland Heights, he'd been monitoring plans to upgrade I-45 for years. Plans seemed to come and go, and straight talk was hard to find. But tonight he was going to reach the end of his tether.

The room at Jeff Davis High School was ringed with posterboard stations, each boasting factoids about the Texas Department of Transportation's thoughts on highway traffic counts, funding issues and the bureaucratic process.

As usual, it was hard to get satisfying answers and there were no handouts to take home to study, Weston says. Then he stumbled across the "pancake" version of I-45. It was wide and flat, in stark black and white -- the equivalent of more than 20 lanes across -- like a lengthy voting ballot laid sideways in neat rows.

"I asked, 'Where are you going to put this? There's no room,' " says Weston, now serving as chair of a citizens group, the I-45 Coalition. The response was less than comforting.

"Oh, well, this isn't the layout we're proposing," the highway official responded, according to Weston. "This is what we're going to probably propose, but this is not the layout."

Weston ran home to get his digital camera. Today, an image of the pancake lanes has worked its way into Camacho's presentation, drawing offended gasps and nervous chuckles from the rotating audiences.

Meanwhile, the Hines Corporation has proposed shifting I-45 over to Houston Avenue to make room for a massive redevelopment scheme.

TxDOT officials say it's too soon to talk about specific alternatives to I-45 expansion. Calls placed to district engineer Gary Trietsch were returned by department spokesperson Janelle Gbur, who said TxDOT's just completed "study phase" considers only general issues, such as the number and type of lanes needed. At this point, the thinking is to add four lanes to the section of I-45 between Beltway 8 and downtown; it is not known whether these will take the form of toll lanes, truck lanes or additional HOV lanes, said Gbur.

But a May 6 meeting about Camacho's tunnel idea did inspire Trietsch to write Councilman Adrian Garcia, promising somewhat blandly that "TxDOT will consider and study these various alternatives."

With TxDOT's only published option being the wider pancake, it's easy for audiences to warm to the images of the world's great tunnels: award-winning designs from places like Amsterdam, London and Germany.

"This one is in Norway," Camacho says, projecting onto the screen what appears to be the illuminated maw of a transglacier express route -- as conceptually distant from Houston's Loop as Superman's Fortress of Solitude. "Of course, soil conditions are a little different." A titter of laughter follows.

Actually, soil conditions in Houston are prime for tunnels, Camacho says, much better than the rocky soils beneath the English Channel, for instance, where a rail tunnel connecting England and France was finished in 1994 after almost two centuries of dreaming.

"Putting things underground is not an unheard of notion, but to do ten miles of it is reasonably aggressive," says Art Story, executive director of Harris County's Public Infrastructure Department, failing to contain his amusement. But a well-built tunnel would be far safer to drive than typical freeways during periods of heavy rain, as long as the tunnel's ends are well above the floodplain, he says.

Though Story is quick to point out it is not a county decision, he suggests the idea has "probably got more problems than benefits."

"When you put anything underground in Harris County, you've got all of the 200 years of utilities that have been placed there. You have the water table," Story says. "But by the same token, some of the major cities in the world have tunnels that go through or around or under. And whatever it costs now, it's going to cost significantly more after we complete the development cycle…I'm not saying it's a foolhardy idea, I'm just saying it has some practical challenges."

Cost is one of those challenges.

Camacho hopes to offset the $215 million-per-mile construction estimate for two 50-foot-diameter tunnels by making the roads tollways. That figure can be misleading, however, since it fails to include other costs, such as engineering designs, project oversight, right-of-way purchases or other utility adjustments. For a better idea of the final costs likely involved, Camacho refers to two three-lane, 2.5-mile tunnels being considered in Dallas that are expected to cost about $300 million per mile.

By comparison, each mile of Katy Freeway reconstruction cost about $108 million to build, according to TxDOT figures.

Safety issues can be addressed with video surveillance and an intricate system of well-marked emergency exits, including "rescue shafts" offering quick access to the surface. There would also be room inside the tunnels to move abandoned vehicles out of the way of traffic, Camacho says.

Embankments at the tunnel's entrances and exits and a network of internal pumps could keep the tunnels clear of water. A tunnel under construction in Malaysia, where residents must wade through three times Houston's annual rainfall of 34 inches each year, is designed to close off the bottom lanes to traffic during periods of heavy rainfall to allow floodwaters to rush through.

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 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."

Tunnel supporter Weston lives two blocks west of the freeway and one block from Houston Avenue. He was initially wary of the tunnel idea because of Boston's experience. "My first impression was 'Ah, it's too expensive'…My first inclination is to think about Boston's Big Dig, and they're billions of dollars over," he says. "But Katy Freeway's billions of dollars over right now, and they didn't go underground."

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 Garcia has met with Camacho several times and even arranged the meeting with 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," Story says. "It needs a champion."

Despite the shortcomings of business-as-usual highway expansion projects, in the engineering ranks there is still hesitancy about going underground.

"It's like doing reconstruction on an old house," says Carol Lewis, director for transportation training and research at Texas Southern University. "You don't know what you're going to get until you start digging down there."

Digging up Main Street for the light rail, crews were faced with surprises, uncovering lots of cabling and telecommunications lines that weren't recorded on any surveys the crews had. "If you have an option, the question's going to be 'Why tunnel?' " Lewis says.

So strip away the argument about cleaner air. Forget about saving historic homes and planting bucolic parks. Don't consider safety. At the bottom of Camacho's tunnel vision is the greater glory of Houston. A grand project on par with those in some of the most majestic European cities would offer the city a new image of itself. And this is where popular thought in regard to infrastructure projects seems to be heading.

Recent talk of roping NASA into helping plan the future of Houston's transportation could help fuel a shift in philosophy.

"Even if it's a light rail pulled by two longhorns with the NASA seal, if we can have that partnership between NASA and Metro in Texas here…people will come to Houston to see it," says Camacho. "We always talk about Houston as the Space City -- well, there it is. There's a huge need for that."

In the meantime, Camacho has adjusted his initial estimates, suggesting tunnels and traditional highway models could be much closer together with regard to cost, and has begun planning an international design competition to put skin on the bones of the tunnel concept.

While some bank on a political champion raising the tunnel standard, Camacho, faithfully working the hometown crowds, is banking on a grassroots swell. After all, they're the ones with their feet to the fire.

"I certainly think it will be residents that will make it happen," Camacho says, adding: "If they think they can just sit back and relax, they better think twice."