Special Report

Tunnel Vision

Only California could come up with a project to rival Boston's Big Dig insanity.

By 9.16.05

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With a $15.8 billion price tag -- six times its original estimate and double the price of the Panama Canal -- to say nothing of some 12,000 design modifications (make that 12,001 once they've figured how to plug all the leaks), one wonders why any sane state would want to replicate the experience of the "Big Dig" under Boston Harbor.

Make that: any sane state with the exception of California, which seemingly parted company with common sense some time ago.

At issue in the Golden State is the "TriTunnel Express," a proposed 10-12 mile tunnel system consisting of three tubes burrowed under the Santa Ana Mountains, connecting Orange and Riverside Counties in the southern portion of the state. If implemented, it would be the longest subterranean highway in the U.S. (by contrast, the Holland Tunnel spans a mere 1.6 miles).

Why the necessity for such a grand undertaking? Chalk it up to two fatal flaws in the California psyche: dreaming big and ignoring reality.

Five years ago, then-Gov. Gray Davis announced that the newly opened Foothill Freeway extension near San Bernardino was "the last freeway" in California -- "Primacy of the Car Is Over, California Governor Declares," the New York Times quickly proclaimed. Still, that didn't stop folks in Orange County from dreaming big. The vision: bore three tunnels through the local mountains, charge a $3 toll each way, and nature will take care of itself as homeowners in affordable Riverside drive to and from the job-rich O.C.

Unfortunately, reality indicates that California's "Big Dig," if not doomed to failure given the state's complicated political landscape, most likely would be a financial sinkhole.

Let's start with the politics. Developers first would have to figure how to appease environmentalists, who plan to fight to tunnels' current projected path under the Cleveland National Forest. That means legal challenges and design changes (cha-ching!). Add to that a ruckus from fringe groups, which, in California at least, are a curious blend of mischief-making and self-centered NIMBYism. Such a group is Warrior Society, which is devoted to mountain biking and fears that the TriTunnels plan could lead to a second tunnel project running under the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, destroying pristine bike turf. My favorite question: who gets stuck with the excavated earth (Boston's "Big Dig," though only 3.5 miles in length, produced 541,000 truckloads of dirt)? California's energy woes exist, in part, because few communities want an oil refinery or nuclear reactor in their backyard. Green is the operative color, not soiled brown.

Add to this the cost factor, not a casual concern in tax-loathing Orange County (indeed TriTunnel's proponents argue that the project can be built without new taxes, but neglect to mention that cost overruns are sure to devour the O.C.'s transportation tax, which inevitably would lead to higher taxes to keep all road projects moving).

Though advertised with a price tag of "only" $3-3.5 billion, private studies put the actual cost at closer to $6 billion. And in California, it's smart to go with the high number: ask any commuter who drives across the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, the replacement of which is now six times its original estimate of a decade ago. Still, that hasn't stopped Congress from moving forward. TriTunnel's proponents managed to slip a $20 million provision deep inside the recent federal transportation bill allowing the two California counties to further study the tunnel project.

Are there alternatives to the TriTunnel? Expanding existing highways would be an option. So would a nonpartisan study of "smart growth," which at the very least would produce an honest picture of overcrowding and traffic congestion (in California, realtors use this fear of traffic congestion and long commute times to keep the housing market afloat).

Rejecting TriTunnel might usher in a better era for Californians, one in which the feasible became the new norm. In Sacramento, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to office promising a revolution he's yet to deliver, in part because the state's political system is incapable of rapid radical change. In Hollywood, filmdom promises bigger and better products, yet a diminished box office indicates otherwise. But the biggest disconnect may be on California's roads -- long the symbol of the Golden State's promised status.

Lawmakers talk about multi-billion high rail systems and expanded infrastructure, yet there's no political will -- nor a public appetite -- to put the state further in hock. Which is where the TriTunnel likewise promises to take California: deep into the earth, and deeper into debt.

It's a myopic vision, which may be why they call it "tunnel vision."

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.