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Tunnel to Safety

Tunnel to Safety

Bobby Hopper tunnel at Interstate 49, Winslow, Arkansas.

By Chad Clinehens

As I was nearing graduation in 1999 and finalizing where I would start my first full-time job as an engineer intern, I traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas to interview for the transportation team of an Arkansas-based engineering firm, where I would ultimately start and spend the majority of my career. On that journey, I left the college town of Fayetteville and traveled interstate 540, now I-49, which had just opened weeks before. I-49 is an approximate 40-mile section of interstate that bypassed US-71, once known as one of the most dangerous highways in America. The opening of I-49 was a huge event for Northwest Arkansas as it dramatically improved accessibility to the south, connecting Northwest Arkansas to I-40, one of the major east-west interstates in the United States. Probably more importantly, it improved the safety of a rapidly increasing population in Northwest Arkansas where travel in and out of the area was essential to the growing commerce. As a kid, I remember traveling highway 71 and seeing the large flashing signs as you would leave Fayetteville saying “16 people killed in the last 3 years. Use extreme caution while traveling” or something similar. If you asked my mom what the opening of I-49 meant for her as I made my first trip to Little Rock on that new, much safer I-49, she would say she slept much better at night.

There was another first for me on my maiden voyage to Little Rock in 1999, it was the first time I had driven through a tunnel. One of the reasons the $458 million alternate route took so long to come to fruition, was the incredibly challenging topography of the project. The 40-mile stretch of interstate has some of the tallest interstate bridges west of the Mississippi River, traversing some extreme peaks and valleys. One of those peaks was an 1,800-foot high section that was ultimately tunneled through. The neat part for me as a civil engineer was the firm I was going to interview with on that day in 1999, Garver, was the firm that was awarded the tunnel feasibility study back when I-49 was just a conceptual plan.

The study determined that a tunnel was the best option as alternatives would spoil the topography and require too much cut. The result was the Bobby Hopper tunnel, the first and only interstate tunnel in Arkansas. With two bores at 1,595 feet long, 38 feet wide and 25 feet tall, interstate traffic enters the mountain effortlessly with plenty of space in the tunnel including shoulders. When I drove through the tunnel, it was not the first time I had been in those tunnels. During construction, I was part of a tour group with the Arkansas Society of Professional Engineers (ASPE) and we were able to go inside the tunnels as they were progressing through the mountain. Getting access to the site was extremely difficult, but once we got there it was a fascinating experience. We toured the tunnels when they were about 40 percent through the mountain. I remember a lot of mud. The tunnels were mined, not bored, through the mountain. Blasting, drilling, and excavation removed native shale and sandstone rocks, which is very prevalent in the area. Had this been during the cell phone camera era I would have plenty of pictures to share, but instead, all I have is memories.

Since then, I’ve been fascinated by tall bridges and tunnels. These epic projects take years and often decades to finish, but once complete, provide access and safety for generations. Last year, right before the pandemic began, I was fortunate to get to ride the Eurostar train from Paris to London. The Channel Tunnel, also known as the “Chunnel”, is a 32-mile railway tunnel under the English Channel at the Strait of Dover. At 380 feet below sea level, traveling 100 mph in the longest underwater tunnel in the world is an exciting experience for a civil engineer.

For us civil and structural engineers, along with the many other related professions that design build the world, we have a lot to be proud of. We give access to new areas of the world. We provide new opportunities for commerce and growth. We provide great experiences. We connect people. We empower the world. What an awesome profession we’ve dedicate our lives to. It all started for me when I traveled that stretch of roadway and that tunnel that had just opened up weeks before. The civil and structural engineers, along with the geologists, surveyors, contractors and beyond spent over 10 years making that new connection possible. What it meant to me was that my mom would sleep better at night knowing the many trips on I-49 that started with that job interview, would be safer and easier.

Chad Clinehens, P.E., is Zweig Group’s president and CEO. Contact him at cclinehens@zweiggroup.com.