Cheaper Tunnels

The tunneling community knows what tunnels cost.  But, much more importantly, the tunneling community knows, or is in the best position to figure, what tunneling could cost if some of the constraints were changed.  The question being raised is: how cheap could tunneling be if the tunnelers had more say?

Some thoughts relative to getting the cost down for tunneled roads:

  • Simplify.  Don’t over-engineer the system.  Modern rail rapid transit systems are not fault tolerant.  Accordingly they are very engineered and expensive.  The underground road system envisioned here is supplementary to the existing surface road system.  The tunnel-capable cars that use the system would run on the surface roads normally in order to enter and leave the underground system. So they could always revert to the surface roads if need be.

  • Keep everything light. The cars traveling in these tunnels would be small light vehicles.  Each tunnel would be two lanes, one for a stream of cars at speed, the other for merging and exiting.  Two lanes of small lightweight vehicles would require, perhaps, a 13’ tunnel or thereabouts.  This brings up a necessary caveat of tunneled roads.  There are no pullover lanes.  Every vehicle must be able to push and be pushed.

  • Tunnel where it’s easy.So much of tunneling today is in the worst possible conditions: soft ground with major liabilities above, waterlogged ground, crowded conditions, downtown with limited working hours.  No way!  Instead, put the tunnels through the surrounding hills above the water table.  We are talking about a new road system supplementary to the existing, but separate.  It can’t happen unless the tunneling is cheap, so put it where it’s easy.

Change Contracting Conditions

Second only to technological advance, the largest contribution to reducing the cost of tunneling could come from changing contracting conditions.

  • Encourage Innovation.  The most regressive requirement common in tunneling contracts is usually worded something like this:  The contractor must have successfully completed several similar projects using the method to be employed on this project within the past so many years.  Further, the project manager and superintendent must have completed within the past so many years several projects using the same methods contemplated to be employed on the subject project.  Although probably understandable in each specific case, could there be a better way to stifle creativity and innovation? 

Better, a parallel quite dissimilar requirement such as:  “The goal of this agency is to build underground road systems.  To do so requires massive amounts of tunneling.  To make this feasible the cost of tunneling must be reduced.  This will require innovation.  Therefore, no bid will be eligible for award if it proposes to use any completely tried and true method.  All bids, to be eligible for award, must have at least one experimental element which promises to reduce the cost of tunneling.  Completely novel approaches will be given priority.”

While you’re laughing at that one, let’s go on to two more of the major inflators of cost: not enough time and contingencies.

  • Allow Time  A system of underground road tunnels would take years to build.  Similarly it would take years to develop and perfect the automatic car control systems.  So, instead of putting it out for bid one phase after another, each with barely enough time, put it all out for bid at once with each piece then having plenty of time.  The big boys and also small tunneling companies could all jump in if no bonds were required because the contractors could:

  • Quit Whenever You Want. This would be a total departure which might work as follows: The tunneling contractor bids to build a reach of tunnel at so much a foot.  The owner never pays more under any circumstance.  But, the contractor can quit for any reason at any time.  If the existing contractor quits, all the contractor’s peers, and even the same contractor, rebid the job a few weeks later under the same deal, Quit Whenever You Want.  Would this idea, or a better one, get the cost down?  Would the jobs get done?  Could the lawyers subvert it?  Could lawyer-like contractors twist it too badly?

  • Enabling legislation.  Underground roads can not happen without enabling legislation.  This could be both good and bad.  Bad in that it would have to be enacted by Congress and/or state legislatures which would take time, but good in that enabling legislation could, if boldly done, sweep away the existing impediments.  Most importantly, the enabling legislation would be about saving time.  With the best intentions we have, as a nation, worked ourselves into a semi-paralysis where the problems fester while solutions are tied in legal and procedural knots.  So, as a final bit of whimsy let’s consider what truly enabling legislation might do:

    1. Appropriate funds and direct them to the selected construction organization. Or, if construction is anticipated by private funding, grant the necessary license and powers.

    2. Modify contracting laws, as required, to allow Quit Whenever You Want or other experiments in construction administration designed to most economically build the finished system.

    3. Streamline resolution of eminent domain and other lawsuits:  The desired result is that the courts expedite any and all litigation related to the underground road system and be directed that in no case, ever, is any injunction to be issued to impede construction. 

    4. Exemption from environmental laws.  This would be the most important article in enabling legislation and, probably, the least likely.  Our courts have become the playground of legally savvy obstructionists.  It is becoming apparent to many that, as Governor Schwarzenegger recently stated, “It is a shame when environmental laws stand in the way of environmental progress”.  This was in relation to the difficulties posed by environmental restrictions in building power lines to move solar generated power from the Mojave Desert to the cities.

    Underground roads would reduce impact on the earth’s surface, relieve traffic congestion and pollution, encourage the switchover to eco-friendly cars, stimulate the economy, and, by requiring innovation in new cars, give Detroit a chance to get ahead.  But, realistically, these worthwhile objectives can not happen without some exemption from environmental restriction and litigation. As in wartime, where victory is paramount, the campaign must go forward and the aftermath dealt with later.