Drive through these 10 tremendous tunnels
By Matt Hickman, Mother Nature Network, 12 January 2016.
By Matt Hickman, Mother Nature Network, 12 January 2016.
Chances are, you've driven though a fair number of tunnels, some short, some long, some spanning underwater and some cutting through formidable topographic features such as mountains that would require a lengthy detour to get from point A to point B.
With an eye toward tunnels that carry vehicular traffic (sorry, Chunnel!), we've rounded up 10 of the world's most singular underground and underwater roadways. Each of these claustrophobic-inducing examples of public infrastructure - all staggering feats of engineering - was built for various reasons. While most were constructed to shave time off established land routes or built as alternatives to ferries or bridges, some of these tunnels provide the only way in - or out - of isolated locations.
Without further ado, make your best honking sound and hold your breath (but not for too long) and prepare yourself for some serious tunnel time. With each tunnel, we've included a link to a video drive-though for an extra layer of armchair exploring.
1. Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel (Whittier, Alaska, USA)
Long, dark, narrow and totally transcendent, a roughly 10-minute jaunt through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel - better known as the Whittier Tunnel - is the best daytrip from Anchorage that US$13 in tolls can buy.
At 2.5 miles long, this single-lane feat of modern engineering slicing right through an Alaskan mountain is the longest combined rail/highway tunnel in North America. Rail and vehicular traffic though the tunnel is regulated by an advanced computerized control system with the latter dictated by an established "departure" schedule: metered traffic heading eastbound toward Prince William Sound via Whittier departs every half hour from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. while westbound traffic leaves on the hour from 6 am to 11 p.m. Scheduled and unscheduled trains, which travel along tracks integrated into the concrete roadway, can prompt delays. Ventilation is provided by a combination of reversible jet turbines and portal fans - a first for tunnel design. Whittier, a teensy yet tourist-friendly port city that's just as fascinating as the tunnel that serves as its only overland link to civilization, is home to roughly 200 residents that famously (mostly) all live under one roof. And considering that accessing Whittier requires traversing a strictly controlled one-way tunnel that's frequently closed, it's the perfect town to relocate to if you want to be real hard to find. Either that or the head of a vampire army on the prowl for an isolated community where getting in - and out - isn't so simple.
2. Detroit-Windsor Tunnel (Michigan and Ontario, USA/Canada)
While country- and continent-connecting underwater railway tunnels get most the love, there's nothing quite like going underwater for a few moments in a car only to emerge in Canada.
Completed in 1930 as the first and only nation-linking underground vehicle tunnel, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel (construction price tag: US$23 million) is also the third oldest underwater vehicle tunnel in the United States - or Canada for that matter - behind New York/New Jersey's Hudson River-crossing Holland Tunnel (1927) and the Posey Tube (1928), which connects Alameda and Oakland, California. The four-lane tunnel - "one of the great engineering wonders of the world" per the Michigan DOT - is also one of the busiest border crossings between the U.S. and Canada alongside the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, also linking Detroit with the city of Windsor, and the Port Huron-to-Point Edward-spanning Blue Water Bridge. Crossing under the Detroit River 75 feet below the surface at a length that's just under a mile, the tunnel boasts a mighty ventilation system capable of pumping 1.5 million cubic feet of fresh air into the 85-year-old subaqueous roadway tube each minute. It's also the only underwater car tunnel that we know of with a (above-ground) duty-free shop. Because no return trip to the U.S. is complete without procuring a jug of Bacardi first.
3. Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel (Colorado, USA)
The highest vehicular tunnel in the United States with an average elevation of 11,112 feet, the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel - or, simply, the Eisenhower Tunnel - travels through the Continental Divide. Hey, no biggie.
Carrying Interstate 70 along a four-lane, dual-bore passage located about 50 miles west of Denver, the Eisenhower Tunnel (technically the name of the westbound bore that opened in 1973, followed by the eastbound bore, named after the Colorado governor and U.S. Senator Edwin C. Johnson, which opened in 1979) spans a little under 1.7 miles from portal to portal. And it's a hardworking, heavily-trafficked tunnel to be sure with over 30,000 vehicles passing through it daily in 2014. Open 24/7, the Eisenhower Tunnel is essentially a shortcut that allows motorists to circumvent the highly scenic - and highly white knuckle thanks to ample hairpin turns - journey over the tunnel along a particularly twisty stretch of U.S. Route 6 through Loveland Pass. While convenient for most, Rocky Mountain scenery-seekers often opt not to knock a little over 9 miles off their journey and take the high mountain pass instead. Here, they're joined by bikes, pedestrians and trucks carrying hazardous materials, all of which are not allowed in the tunnel throughout most of the year.
4. Lærdal Tunnel (Norway)
By now, they might as well make the unofficial tourism slogan for Norway: "Come for the breathtaking scenery, stay for the non-stop tunnel action."
And indeed, this topographically intense Scandinavian nation is positively lousy with car-carrying tubes passing through mountains, between islands, under fjords and beneath active troll habitats. It's to little surprise then that the longest of the over 1,000 road tunnels in Norway is also the longest in the entire world. Spanning 15 miles across particularly tricky-to-navigate Sogn og Fjordane county, Lærda Tunnel is relatively new - it opened in 2000 as a means of eliminating the ferry rides and frequently closed mountain passes associated with traveling from Oslo to Bergen along the E16 highway. Considering that it takes about 20 minutes to travel from portal to portal, Lærda employs unique design considerations to keep dazed/fatigued/claustrophobic motorists alert and engaged. Most notably, the two-lane mountain tunnel features a trio of monotony-breaking caves-cum-rest areas illuminated by a sunrise-mimicking lighting scheme. Spaced roughly 3 miles apart, here drivers can stop and take a quick breather - or turn around and head back the other way if they're too freaked out to go on. The roadway is also equipped with rumble strips to prevent drivers from becoming dangerously spaced out (20 minutes in a tunnel can do that to you). On the ventilation front, Lærda is the first vehicular tunnel in the world to boast its very own air treatment plant.
5. Mont Blanc Tunnel (France and Italy)
Heavily trafficked, economically vital and incredibly deep, the Mont Blanc Tunnel isn't the only country-connecting road tunnel in Europe - or in the Alps for that matter. It is, however, the most tragic.
A time-saving triumph of engineering when completed in 1965, the 7.2-mile-long Mont Blanc Tunnel reigned for over a decade as the longest road tunnel in the world. Whisking traffic between the bustling ski resorts of Chamonix, France, with Courmayeur, Italy, the tunnel is co-managed by both of these countries. (Switzerland also helped foot the bill). And disaster struck both of these countries March 24, 1999 when a fire broke out on a Belgian cargo truck passing through the middle of the single-bore passage. While a modest blaze at first, within moments the two-lane tunnel was plunged into darkness, transformed into a hellacious furnace trapping 50 motorists and a brigade of emergency responders inside. When the toxic smoke finally cleared 50 hours later, 38 people had lost their lives. Following the fire, the Mont Blanc Tunnel was closed for three years as it was repaired and retrofitted to include numerous new safety features. Today, memorial plaques can be found near both the Italian and French portals. Sadly, just two years later, another single-bore road tunnel in the Alps, Switzerland's 10.5-mile-long Gotthard Road Tunnel, was the site of a deadly vehicle fire that claimed the lives of 11 motorists.
6. Mount Baker Tunnel (Seattle, USA)
Undulating and bounded by water, the isthmian city of Seattle is well-known for its numerous bridges, including a span that shelters a Volkswagen-crushing troll and a trio of world-famous floating bridges that stretch across Lake Washington. While bridges dominate Seattle's glacier-carved landscape, the city also happens to be home to a few notable tunnels - both realized and in-progress - as well.
Seattle's finest vehicular tunnel is the art deco-tinged marvel of mid-20th century engineering known as the Mount Baker Tunnel. Actually three separate tunnels, the Mount Baker Tunnel is comprised of twin bore tunnels completed in 1940. A third tunnel, a double-decked affair with a pedestrian/bicycle pathway, joined the original tunnels in 1991. Together, they carry Interstate 90 beneath the hilly southeast Seattle neighborhood of Mount Baker. And while the video above could do with a well-timed sunset and some cheesy trance music, it does show that emerging from the concrete-sheathed darkness through the tunnel's eastern portal is an experience like no other. No matter how many times you've done it, it still takes your breath away. And here's what it looks like approaching the tunnel from the west - on a bike.
7. SMART Tunnel (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
Completed in 2007, Malaysia's SMART Tunnel is perhaps the most fascinating — and multifaceted - tunnel on this list given that its primary function isn't even to carry traffic. Rather, it was designed and built with the main goal to divert stormwater away from the oft-flooded centre of Kuala Lumpur. Essentially, SMART Tunnel - "Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel" - is the world's coolest drainage pipe that you can also drive in.
Both the longest tunnel in Malaysia and the world's longest multi-purpose tunnel, SMART Tunnel, to be clear, doesn't handle both traffic along Expressway 38 and floodwater in the same tunnel simultaneously. When needed, floodwater is diverted into a longer separate bypass tunnel located underneath the 2.5-mile double-deck roadway tunnel. In this scenario, traffic can continue as normal. During heavy, prolonged rains when the threat of extreme flooding is high, the roadway is closed off to vehicles and automated flood control gates are opened so that water can be diverted through both tunnels. Since opening, the United Nations-recognized SMART Tunnel has helped stave off several potentially catastrophic urban flash floods and dramatically reduced traffic congestion.
8. Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line (Japan)
While North America is home to a small handful of noteworthy bridge-tunnel complexes including Virginia's Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, leave it to Japan to construct the most show-stopping fixed link of them all.
Cutting through the heart of Tokyo Bay, this nearly 9 mile bridge-tunnel combo slashes the commute time between the bustling prefectures of Kanagawa and Chiba from over 90 minutes to just 15. Completed in 1997 following over three decades of planning and construction, it also eliminates the to travel through traffic-choked Tokyo itself. While the tunnel section of the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line is an impressive feat of modern engineering - at just shy of 6 miles, it's the fourth longest underwater tunnel in the world and the world's largest underwater road tunnel - the complex is best known for Umihotaru (translation: "sea firefly"), the artificial island-cum-tourist attraction that connects the tunnel with the bridge. On Umihotaru, essentially a roadside rest area on steroids that just happens to be floating in the middle of Tokyo Bay, visitors will find a variety of restaurants, shops and perhaps the most unique observation deck in all of Japan. Visitors are advised to hold on to their hats - it's windy out there.
9. Yerba Buena Island Tunnel (San Francisco, USA)
The gridlock-riddled journey by car across the San Francisco Bay from San Francisco en route to Oakland or vice versa, involves, of course, crossing the dual double-decked suspension bridges collectively known as the Bay Bridge. But an integral part of the trip, one that often leaves first-time Bay Bridge drivers mystified, involves a quick trip through a tunnel.
The tunnel is none other than the Yerba Buena Island Tunnel, a single bore tunnel that's carried traffic along a double-deck roadway since 1936. So what exactly, aside from a tunnel that links the western span and the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, can be found on Yerba Buena Island? Not much, really. Connected by causeway to the better-known Treasure Island (an artificial landmass built for a world's fair and later used to a naval base), Yerba Buena - formerly Goat Island - is home a sleepy residential neighborhood of roughly 40 households, a couple of parks, a small U.S. Coast Guard station and tower, a historic lighthouse and not a whole lot of tourists. And views. Lots of knockout views. However, times are changing on Yerba Buena Island - an island that upwards of 200,000 motorists drive through the heart of on a daily basis but that few have ever actually explored - as developers move ahead with a luxury housing development that will forever change the character of this quiet, bridge-anchoring gem in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
10. Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel (Zion National Park, Utah, USA)
The Grand Staircase. The Virgin River. Angels Landing. Kolob Arch. Pretty much all the sights within slot canyon-heavy Zion National Park are, naturally, the handiwork of Mother Nature. However, no trip to this crimson-tinted moonscape is complete without a drive through the park's famed man-made attraction: the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel.
Spanning 1.1 miles through the middle of a sandstone mountain, the two-lane Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel is longest vehicular tunnel in the National Park System. When completed in 1930, it also claimed bragging rights as the longest road tunnel, period, in the United States. Entering from the eastern porthole is akin to being swallowed up through a giant hole in a rock. Inside the tunnel, a series of galleries - giant windows carved out of the side of the mountain, essentially - provide bursts of natural light and fresh air. Giving the narrow, winding nature of the tunnel and the fact that it's located in a national park (read: lots of motor homes and camper vans driven by distracted vacationers), larger vehicles are now required to secure a US$15 "tunnel permit" that basically grants the drivers of said larger vehicles permission to pass through the tunnel with traffic control provided by rangers stationed at each end. When a permit-holding large vehicle - or a parade of large vehicles going in the same direction - need to access the tunnel, park rangers temporarily close it to two-way traffic so that they can travel safety through without worry of crossing the centre line and colliding with another passing Winnebago.
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Top image: The SMART Tunnel, Kuala Lumpur, via Amusing Planet.
[Source: Mother Nature Network. Edited. Top image and some links added.]