Washburn Tunnel Traffic Could Change, Shrink

It's been open since 1950, the only underwater vehicle tunnel currently in operation in Texas. The Washburn Tunnel connects Pasadena and Galena Park under the Houston Ship Channel, a half-mile long piece of local history that could soon be off-limits to large commercial trucks. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams found out during the recent visit, the tunnel seems to get smaller as today's vehicles get larger.

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I'm driving through the Washburn Tunnel right now. It's only two lanes wide, kind of cramped, only 11 feet for each lane. It's cramped for a vehicle like mine even, just a normal truck, much less a large, commercial vehicle. Many of those drive through here every day.

"The tunnel was designed in the 40's. It was built in 1950. The tunnel is designed at a particular time when vehicles were much smaller, transportation and trucking vehicles."ξξ
Bernard Koudelka is the chief engineer with Harris County and has been part of a study over the past year to determine what it might take to make the tunnel last even longer than it has already. He says the results show large commercial trucks, with three axles or more, just don't fit into the tunnel like they used to.

"As they've grown, they've continued to use the tunnel and have done quite a bit of damage and the impacts long-term, try to make the tunnel last a long time, you want to reduce those impacts as much as you can."

Large tanker trucks are already off-limits in the tunnel because of the fire hazard. Of the 22,000 vehicles that use the tunnel each day, about 90-percent of them are passenger cars and trucks. Ten percent are commercial vehicles and about half of those are ones with three axels or more. If Harris County Commissioners decide to ban those trucks, it would mean about 1,100 vehicles would have to find a new route over the Ship Channel. This is Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia.

"The good news is that the full study that we did tells us that if we just do a few more repairs and do some upgrades and make some of these kinds of restrictions, we'll extend the life of the tunnel for years to come, that we don't have to worry about replacing it. So I'd rather do a few little changes, do what I can to upgrade, and it avoids facing a potentiallyξ $20 million problem."

Garcia says she plans public hearings on the proposed restrictions soon.

"We will probably be in Pasadena within the next 30 days, or Galena Park, we haven't decided, but it will be somewhere in the Washburn Tunnel area to give everyone a chance to come give their input. If they like the idea, they can tell us. If they don't they can tell us why not and maybe we can work something out."

Garcia says the County just got the okay to put the Washburn Tunnel on the National Historic Register in Texas, with final approval of the designation expected next month.ξξξ

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