Federal planners and officials in the District of Columbia are reviewing a proposal to build a multilane tunnel to carry motor traffic underground near the White House instead of reopening Pennsylvania Avenue.
A federal task force on security design has hired a traffic consultant to assess the effect of various tunnel lengths on downtown Washington drivers. No cost estimate is available, but a two-block tunnel proposed in 1984 to run below the country's most famous address is projected to cost $70 million in today's dollars. A final recommendation is due by fall to President Bush.
The tunnel proposal is gaining attention because federal law enforcement agencies, fearing a catastrophic bomb attack, flatly oppose allowing public vehicular traffic near the presidential mansion. City officials, civic leaders, architects and historians are equally adamant that concrete barriers installed in May 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing pose an unacceptable visual and transportation toll.
"The tunnel may be a compromise," said Fred Lindstrom of the Commission on Fine Arts, a federal planning board for the city. "I don't know at this point if it is going to be a good compromise or not."
Another participant, speaking anonymously because of task force limits on public discussion, said: "You've got two immovable forces: security and traffic. It's impossible those two sides are ever going to agree. So a tunnel at the moment tends to be one we can all grasp. It might be a way out of the impasse."
Congress is poised to consider resolutions urging the commission and president to reopen the street, with the House expected to pass a measure next week.
A key sticking point with the tunnel proposal is funding. Because options being discussed call for a longer tunnel than the 1984 proposal, costs will be higher. City leaders said a tunnel will be a token compromise unless it is funded by the Bush administration.
"It is a viable alternative, structurally," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's delegate to Congress. "It will only happen if it goes in the president's budget. To put that idea forward without the backing of the White House is a false promise."
There's no consensus among preservationists and planners that a tunnel will be an aesthetic improvement.