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Published: Sunday, 11/20/2005

Tunneling toward danger

You have to wonder whether the smog is affecting the judgment of regional planners in southern California who are trying to figure out how to deal with ever-increasing traffic. We realize that when it takes a motorist 90 minutes to go six miles from home to work, something must be done. But a tunnel in earthquake country?

Traffic is bad in Orange County, where 400,000 commuters make their way daily to work by car from surrounding counties. Planners in Orange and Riverside counties have spent 18 months and $15 million in federal money trying to find solutions. Housing is cheaper in Riverside, the jobs are in Orange, and the roads between them carry 268,000 cars every day - 50,000 more than they were designed to handle.

And the outlook isn't any better. Within 25 years, traffic is expected to rise to a half-million cars.

But if they build an 11-mile highway tunnel hardly a mile from a geologic fault blamed for a 6.0 magnitude earthquake about 100 years ago, they could be courting danger unnecessarily. How many motorists will really want to take a tunnel that's 700 feet below ground, especially in an area of California where people have expected "the big one" for years? Moreover, by the time such a project could be finished, there would be a lot more traffic anyway. Planners say the project could cost $9 billion and take 25 years to build. It would be the second-longest road tunnel in the world. Norway's 15-mile Laerdal Tunnel, which opened five years ago, is longest.

A consultant who was in on the idea insists there is no reason to worry. "A tunnel is actually a very safe place," said H. Tony Rahimian. "We don't want to run it through the fault, and we're going to avoid that."

Well, that's surely going to be a relief to the California motorists. Maybe those guys should let the smog clear from their heads before they begin diggin.

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