Tunnel ready to go, Whittier facility nation's largest
Anchorage Daily News
Molly Brown, Daily News reporter
May 23, 2000

BEAR VALLEY - Project engineer Jeff Brown can look out from the control room windows in the pretty vale, past the looming entrance to the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel and across a staging area where cars, trucks and buses will wait their turn to travel 2.5 miles under a mountain to Whittier.

No one knows for sure how many will come, though estimates run as high as 700,000 visitors this summer.  They will line up in a giant parking lot and then convoy through the A-frame entrance and into dim light for about six minutes through the longest highway tunnel and the longest combined rail-highway tunnel in the nation.

The $80 million project to convert a railroad tunnel into a access road for cars, buses, trucks and trains was controversial from the start. Some people worried it would bring disaster for Prince William Sound. Whittier residents argued for the convenience and against being overrun by boat-toting visitors. Some called it a waste of money.

One thing everyone agrees on is it will open June 7.

From the control room - what Brown calls the "brains of everything" - workers will monitor the traffic using a computer, 49 closed-circuit television cameras and 19 radar detectors that check presence and speed.

Ten of the cameras can be directed to pan, tilt and zoom in on passing vehicles and trains, Brown said. The control room's five television screens can be split to show four camera views each, he said, and the two computer screens display icons of all the tunnel's elements - portal fans, jet fans, safe houses - from Bear Valley into Whittier.

The tunnel staging area separates cars, buses and commercial vehicles. A series of red and green lights will direct drivers and provide the required space between them, he said. Cars will be spaced about 2.5 seconds apart, and buses will leave every 45 seconds.

Another sign will broadcast messages and an estimate of how long drivers will wait to pass through. Officials estimate that 800 cars can pass through the tunnel each hour - 400 in each direction.

The portals on each side of the tunnel have a similar A-frame shape, but Whittier's portal is heftier, able to withstand a direct hit from an avalanche, he said.

At both ends, metal sheeting hides heated lines to control ice buildup in winter, Brown said. Wire mesh covers the roof of the tunnel, preventing big rocks from falling onto the floor or onto a windshield.

Drivers will roll through the tunnel on concrete that was cast in California, flown to Alaska and set in 7-foot panels along and between the rails.

"Driving on the rails doesn't pull you around," Brown said as he drove his diesel pickup through the tunnel.

Motorists will pass an emergency telephone every 300 feet, he said. Also, each will have been given an information pamphlet. In an emergency, drivers will be directed to turn off their cars, leave the keys in the ignition and evacuate to one of eight safe houses - fireproof rooms that can hold 55 people each.

The safe houses are equipped with a bathroom, first-aid kit, water, blankets and emergency telephone.

"It's my hope that the safe houses are never used," Brown said.

The tunnel can't handle cars and trains at the same time. When the tunnel is in train mode, a red-and-white striped fence will prevent cars from advancing. When buses are rolling, only eight will be allowed in the tunnel at one time, ensuring that every passenger has a spot in one of eight safe houses.

The real guts of the tunnel is something motorists will barely notice: the ventilation system that monitors and purges the tunnel of carbon monoxide and other fumes, all the while making sure air flows in the direction of traffic. The monstrous jet and portal fans are to ensure a safe air supply for people stuck behind a broken-down car or caught in some other emergency, Brown said.

"Ventilation is really the heart and soul that makes it what it is," Brown said as he pointed to the fans on one of the control center's computer monitors.

The 2.5-mile tunnel drops 70 feet from Bear Valley to Whittier, Brown said. Trains have to work harder coming up from Whittier and will "smoke the tunnel up real good," he said.

Two state-of-the-art firetrucks equipped with foam, dry chemicals, infrared detection systems and rail gear will be staged at each end of the tunnel, Brown said.  Front-end loaders and motorcycles, powerful enough to pull broken-down cars to the pullout sites in the tunnel, will also be on hand.

Now that the tunnel is almost completed, crews are busy paving staging areas and putting in light posts and traffic signals.  Systems are being integrated so all components work together, Brown said.
Tunnel to Whittier
By the numbers
2 Number of firetrucks dispatched to the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel
2.5 Length of the tunnel, in miles
2.5 Minimum number of seconds between cars in the tunnel
6 Typical time of drive from Bear Valley to Whittier, in minutes
8 Maximum number of buses allowed in the tunnel at one time
19 Number of radar detectors
25 Tunnel speed limit, in miles per hour
49 Number of closed circuit cameras monitoring traffic
55 Number of people who fit in one of the eight fireproof emergency rooms
80 Cost of tunnel, in millions of dollars
300 Number of feet between phones
800 Maximum number of vehicles that will pass through the tunnel per hour