Digging It

Tunnels are a rare bird in Houston. But will they fly for I-45?

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.

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

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.

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