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Blueprints Vol. III

December 07, 2015

Northeast Ohio's Tremendous Tunnels

By James T. Dixon, co-chair, Real Estate & Construction practice group

Northeast Ohio’s tunneling projects have been in the news of late, so I am taking this opportunity to let you know about the fascinating work that is taking place—in some instances right under your feet.

My experience with tunnel projects began in 2007 through work on a case related to the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s Mill Creek Tunnel. That tunnel, completed just a few years ago, is nearly three miles in length and around 20 feet in diameter. It runs, roughly, north of and parallel to I-480 from Lee Road in the east to the District’s Southerly Treatment Center in the west. Like all of the local tunnels mentioned in this article, the Mill Creek Tunnel was designed to collect sewage overflows that otherwise dump into nearby streams, rivers, and Lake Erie. The Mill Creek was in the news recently after the District released data demonstrating significant improvement in the quality of its water, which flows into the Cuyahoga River.

Large tunneling projects are excavated using tunnel boring machines, or TBMs. These fascinating machines are rolling earth-removal factories, with a face that grinds soil and rock at a slow and steady pace and a long trailing assembly that removes the waste. Some TBMs are also built to install the concrete walls of the tunnel as they move forward.

Northeast Ohio has unique ties to the tunneling industry. Cleveland-area resident Victor Scaravilli invented the first TBM capable of boring through hard rock. The Robbins Company of Solon is one of the few major players in the global manufacture of TBMs. Five of its TBMs were used on the famous Channel Tunnel. “Big Becky,” a Robbins machine, created the largest diameter tunnel completed to date, the 47-foot diameter Niagara Falls Tunnel. (There is a larger project in the works now, but its TBM has been stuck underground in Seattle for two years.) The Swiss government completed the world’s longest tunnel in September. It took ten years and $10 billion to construct. It runs for more than 35 miles under the Swiss Alps.

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District is in the midst of a 25-year plan—Project Clean Lake—to spend $3 billion constructing tunnels and related infrastructure. In mid-September, the District announced the completion of the Euclid Creek Tunnel, a three-mile shaft that runs from East 185th and St. Clair toward and under the lake before bending south and ending at East 140th Street and I-90. The District recently started work on the Dugway Storage Tunnel under a contract with Salini Healy Joint Venture, an Italian and American team. That tunnel is 24 feet in diameter and nearly three miles in length. It runs from the western end of the Euclid Creek Tunnel to the west along I-90, then south to East 120th and Superior.

On November 6, the City of Akron broke ground on the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel (OCIT) project, which involves the construction of a mile long tunnel under downtown Akron. Akron’s Welty Building Company is serving as a part of the Construction Management Team, while the contractor completing the work is a joint venture of Chicago’s Kenney Construction and Japan’s Obayashi Corporation. Akron will spend $1.4 billion to improve its system, with $317 million of that directed toward OCIT.

The City of Lorain is also spending $65 million on its Black River Tunnel project.

As you may have guessed, the Environmental Protection Agency is driving this work by enforcing the Clean Water Act through consent decrees with each agency. If you would like to broaden your understanding of the use of tunnels in this way nationally, as well as how other cities are adopting “green” rather than these “gray” (i.e. concrete) solutions, you can review this excellent article from Tunnel Talk. And, The Plain Dealer ran a lengthy series on the subject.

I tell everyone I can (even those who do not get as excited as I do talking about tunnels) that these are the most important civil works projects in the region. The data from the Mill Creek points to a future that includes cleaner streams, a cleaner Cuyahoga River, and a cleaner Lake Erie. The benefit to our communities will be immeasurable.

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