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Debunking the myth of expensive tunneling for Light Rail at IND airport

Possible LRT Routing to IND airport (tunnel in blue)

Possible LRT Routing to IND airport (tunnel in blue)

When Indyconnect released it’s innitial findings, citizens were very excited about one prospect that was relayed and that was a direct light rail link from downtown to the airport on Indianapolis’ westside. However, upon further examination, the Indyconnect team clarified in meetings and local media that this link would not go all the way to the airport. The reasons that they gave were founded upon the notion that it is expensive to tunnel under the north runway that seperates IND’s Midfield Terminal from Washington Street. The Indianapolis Airport Authority is halfway through their land use study as well and plan to unveil some findings at a few open house sessions scheduled for the end of this month. Their findings could include some of what Indyconnect has planned. Could it include plans for a direct link? Or could it conclude that it is too expensive and that a shuttle bus from the terminal to a station located on Washington Street is the best, or most economic option?

Robertson Tunnel East Side, Portland Oregon

Robertson Tunnel East Side, Portland Oregon

Granted, when one compares the raw expense of laying rail upon gravel ballast along a flat plane versus tunnelling under a few hundred feet of ground and under a thick runway, there really is no comparison. Tunnelling is infinitely more expensive. Also, purchasing a bus to shuttle people the short distance from the terminal to Washington Street would likely represent less of an investment in buses and paying drivers. Buses would represent a delay in getting from one mode to another as well.

Being the fan of light rail that I am, I went to Google Maps and constructed a quick map measuring the distance from the ground transportation area, across the airport to an area that appears to be open enough to accomodate a rail link between facilities. According to the handy measurement tool, it is roughly 2300 feet (see image above) of tunnel required to get under the north runway. This is shy of half a mile of tunnelling through previously designed and predictable sub-base. Engineers and construction personel would uncover no challenges on their way to constructing such a tunnel across this expanse of land.

Portland Westside MAX Tunnel

Portland Westside MAX Tunnel

For some comparison, and an easy way to put this in perspective, I took a look at Portland’s Westside MAX Blue Line. It was constructed using a 3.1 mile long tunnel as the rail line leaves downtown Portland. Construction of the Robertson Tunnel (click to read Wikipedia entry) began in 1994 and the cost to construct it was $184 million. Adjusted for inflation, that is roughly $262 million in 2009, or about $87 million a mile. Robertson Tunnel is a great example of a light rail tunnel that travels a long distance through different types of materials and which utilized different methods of tunnelling and mining to complete.  

Minneapolis Airport light rail tunnel

Minneapolis Airport light rail tunnel

Another light rail project here in the US that has been constructed more recently, and in which directly involved tunnelling under an airport runway, can be found in our own region. Minneapolis’ Hiawatha line, the first LRT for the city, was designed with a portion of the line travelling under their airport on it’s way to the final destination, The Mall of America. The design presented significant difficulties, but was completed by boring a tunnel under the runways, while the airport was in operation. According to the article found here, the joint venture of Tokyo-based Obayashi Corp. and Litchfield, Conn.-based Johnson Brothers Corp bid the project at $110 million. The tunnel measures 7300 feet and is comprised of twin bores. They used a portion of cut and cover tunnelling at each end, but primarily utilized a boring machine to cut the tubes.

Hiawatha LRT Tunnel Entrance (via Specmix)

Hiawatha LRT Tunnel Entrance (via Specmix)

Simply using these two projects and comparing the prices per foot to perform labor versus the distance required to construct a similar tunnel at IND, I calculate $30-$40 to get this done. ($34 using Minneapolis rate and $37 using Portland’s rate).

Is that a lot of money? Sure it is. However, when you consider that the entire cost of a downtown to IND link will likely range somewhere from $500-$700 million, this is really a minor expense that would greatly increase the mobility for people travelling to and from Indianapolis. As a region, we have already expressed our desire to spend a lot of money in a small area when it comes to large transportation projects. All one needs to do is examine the reconstruction of the 465/70 exchange on the west side currently taking place less than a mile from the airport. This single exchange is costing tax payers just a tick under $90 million.

I leave the rest to you, the reader, to offer additional insight on this topic. These are the facts.

8 Responses to “ “Debunking the myth of expensive tunneling for Light Rail at IND airport”

  1. Good work digging up the info on costs and comparisons. A direct connection from downtown to the airport is not optional, it is a requirement. I can’t believe the city is considering a shuttle bus as an alternative. If Indy is going to continue winning sporting, tourism, and conventions then its going to have to compete with other cities who all have walkable downtowns *and* a direct rail connection to the airport.

  2. Kyle M. says:

    They should really take the line all the way to the airport, either around or underground, it should go to the front door. For my plan of a light rail system I used your idea of digging under to get there. Here is a link to Google Maps for the system: http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF&msa=0&msid=113066714580779168279.000490691831978869182

    • Curt Ailes says:

      Im surprised that someone would have the will to suggest a rail line travel to within a mile of the terminal and then say that its too expensive to take it the rest of the way. Even worse is the HTNB’s KC office did the Minneapolis plan, and HNTB also has a large part of the plan here in Indy. Ive personally been at the table with HNTB and heard the words uttered that its difficult and expensive. I call it hogwash and a lack of will to get that last mile and make it world class, instead of laughing class. Just baffles me the lack of will to “do it right”

  3. Great article Curt. I am glad someone is advocating for these ideas. Making this connection would only enhance the light rail investment and make such an investment justifiable and sustainable long-term. Short-term costs should not get in the way of making smart long-term decisions. Lets hope decision makers are listening.

  4. Chris Barnett says:

    Remember, Curt, that for most of the last 50 years “transportation planning” has meant “building and expanding freeways and highways.” So the entire justification for suburban rail boils down to taking 2,000 (or even 10,000) cars a day off I-69, 465, and 70…a drop in the bucket.

    Meantime, people like you and me who live by choice in the “old city” of Indianapolis would and could actually use a north-south/east-west streetcar system in conjunction with a beefed-up IndyGo. Instead we pretty much must go everywhere by car. Never mind that we’re willing to pay the half-penny or penny in sales tax that it would take to build a much better bus-and-streetcar system in Marion County.

  5. Matt McClure says:

    If Indy ever wishes to be taken seriously, light rail to the airport is key. This could be used for staging parking for Colts’ games and other big events as well. Minneapolis is a fantastic model and downtown and Union Station will benefit as well! Then put trains to Terre Haute to the west and Muncie to the east!!!


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