FORT WAYNE – Take the four largest public projects in recent years handled by local governments and add them together, and they still won’t match the size and expense of what Fort Wayne officials have planned for 2017.
In fact, only the $207 million construction of Interstate 469, completed in 1995 and funded by the federal and state governments, will top the $150 million deep tunnel project officials hope to complete by 2024.
The project, which will stretch about seven miles and include five miles of deep tunnel, is part of the city’s 18-year, $240 million effort to curb the flow of raw sewage into the rivers, agreed to in a settlement with the federal government over its violations of the Clean Water Act. During heavy rains, the city’s sewage system overflows, dumping an estimated 1 billion gallons of sewage a year into the rivers, mostly the St. Marys and Maumee.
The cost of the tunnel project, like all of the hundreds of projects in what city officials call the “long-term control plan” or “consent-decree projects” will be borne by City Utilities rate payers.
Raising rates is not something politicians like to do, but in this case, there is no choice. Matthew Wirtz, deputy director of engineering for Fort Wayne City Utilities, said fines for missing deadlines on the projects start at $5,000 a day and go up after 30 days.
The projects are expensive, but not as expensive as doing nothing.
“(Officials) could have done a lot of things a long time ago, but they chose to pass the buck because they didn’t want to raise people’s bills,” said City Council President Tom Didier, R-3rd. “But people want clean rivers. They want clean water.”
To get clean rivers requires keeping sewage out, and that means building a system that can handle the waste generated by hundreds of thousands of people. But there may be benefits that outweigh the expense.
“You can go to Meijer and see pictures of people swimming at the beach at Johnny Appleseed Park – you can have that back,” Didier said. “We have three rivers and we don’t do a damn thing with them.”
‘Out of sight’
Despite the size and expense of the project, it is cheaper to do it this way, officials say.
The finished tunnel is expected to be about 12 feet in diameter. To build a sewer line of that size in the traditional manner would require closing entire streets for years at a time, for a project that stretches over seven miles from Foster Park to the treatment plant on Dwenger Avenue, through downtown and across major thoroughfares.
“A traditional, open-cut sewer would cost twice, if not three times, more,” City Utilities Director Kumar Menon said. “And the disruption – almost every road in Fort Wayne would be torn up.”
That disruption has a cost, too: Just ask any business downtown near the storm-sewer construction project currently underway. Now imagine that $2 million project – which shut down Main Street and forced Ewing to become a two-way street for a month – multiplied 150 times.
When you see the scope of a deep tunnel project – The Journal Gazette recently toured the first leg of the Indianapolis Tunnel System project called the Deep Rock Tunnel – it is hard to imagine it is cheaper than the traditional method. But by tunneling through the bedrock, there are no utility lines to avoid, no gas pipes or water mains.
In Indianapolis, there is a large construction site at the working shaft and a smaller one at the end of the tunnel. So for the most part, the largest public works project in Fort Wayne’s history will be almost unnoticed.
There will be small construction sites along the route where workers dig drop shafts to the tunnel, but those will be nothing compared with what happens underground.
“Ultimately, what people dislike about construction is the disruption,” said Michael Miller, a Citizens Energy Group engineer on the Indianapolis project. “This is out of sight, out of mind, so people love it.”
Going through rock
The tunnel, officially called the Three Rivers Protection and Overflow Reduction Tunnel, or 3R-PORT, will likely be 14 feet in diameter before it is lined with concrete.
The great thing about the bedrock in Indiana, officials said, is that the limestone is stronger than concrete, so a tunnel needs no structural support – the concrete lining will be simply to prevent groundwater infiltration.
The limestone is also soft enough to tear through with a tunnel boring machine, or TBM. These massive machines use a giant, rotating cutting head to grind through the rock, then remove the debris to a conveyor belt where it can be carried to the surface.
The rock is so perfect for drilling, Indianapolis officials said, they set a world record on the Deep Rock Tunnel Connector this summer by drilling 409 feet in one day. The tunnels have a minimum 100-year lifespan.
The TBMs are massive and have to be lowered to the tunnel piece by piece and assembled there. The one used in Indianapolis is about 500 feet long.
How do crews create the tunnel where the TBM is built? Crews call it “drill and shoot,” but most people would call the method “blasting.” Holes are drilled into the rock face, then filled with explosives.
After the blast, the debris is removed and the process starts over. In Fort Wayne, that will take place near the treatment plant – the site of the large working shaft – where there are few homes. And even if there were homes nearby, officials said, the work is so deep and the explosions so precise they are hardly noticeable.
And, Miller said, there might not even be any explosions.
“Just because we had to drill and shoot (in Indianapolis) doesn’t mean you’ll have to in Fort Wayne, even if you’re going through rock,” he said.
The TBMs are also expensive, so much so that officials expect to monitor tunnel projects around the world and time the Fort Wayne project to when one is available.
City Utilities’ Kelly Bajic said the 3R-PORT is in the early planning stages, but it appears that the tunnel – despite its size – will be only for moving sewage, not storing it.
Instead, the storage will occur where it empties out, on the north side of the Maumee River. There, officials have huge ponds to store overflow during rain storms and are about to complete a massive pumping station for moving sewage across the river for storage and treatment. Because that pumping station will be operating, sucking sewage across the river, the sewage in the tunnel will be siphoned up 150 feet without having separate pumps.
Officials don’t know where the second working shaft will be but said it could be in Indian Village Park, near Bluffton Road and Broadway.
Gratz said the city has issued requests for proposals and expect to award design contracts in the spring. In the meantime, officials have been doing deep borings to determine where the bedrock starts and its makeup. The bedrock here starts at about 65 feet, and officials have bored 185 feet deep.
Inside the Deep Rock Tunnel in Indianapolis, it would be easy to think it smells like concrete, but in fact, concrete smells like limestone, which is what you smell there.
The floor of the tunnel is muddy, but that is from the small amount of groundwater that leaches in through the rock. It runs in a tiny stream through the 6 miles of the tunnel to a pump near the working shaft.
Near the working shaft, the tunnel is large – 23 feet in diameter – and the sides are rough; this is the portion blasted out to assemble the TBM. But after the first 600 feet, the shaft is perfectly round and so smooth it appears to be made of concrete.
Tiny-gauge railroad tracks are in the center of the tunnel for a train that carries workers to the job site 6 miles ahead. Pipes and lights line one side of the tunnel and the conveyor belt hugs the other.
With the perfect shape, smooth sides and cool electric light, it’s easy to peer down the tunnel and think you’re looking into Fort Wayne’s future. But in fact, officials note, you’re looking into the past.
A closer look at the sides of the tunnel reveal lines in the rock – layers of sediment created by an ocean that covered the Midwest millions of years ago.
Millions of dollars will be spent, hundreds of people will work on the project, and when complete the 3R-PORT will help create a new future where Fort Wayne’s rivers are something more than just open sewers.
But to get there, officials say, they’ll have to literally dig through the past in a place where every layer of rock, most just an inch or two apart, represents 100,000 years of history.