Chicago's 'Deep Tunnel' may be in deep trouble

"Deep Tunnel" has come up against some big trouble. That's the nickname Chicagoans have given a controversial planned 131-mile underground labyrinth of storm sewers and reservoirs which could evolve into the most expensive public works project ever launched.

A number of cities around the country which have pollution and flooding problems similar to those in Chicago are watching closely to see if the Windy City's model -- considered an engineering masterpiece by foes and fans alike -- proves to be one they should duplicate on their home turf.

The problem is that watchdog groups have been biting at the heels of the project ever since construction first began five years ago. They question its cost effectiveness.

The criticism, which began locally with Chicago's Better Government Association, soon drew the attention through Congress of the General Accounting Office (GAO). That agency says the total cost of the project could well reach $ 11 billion -- almost $2 billion more than the Alaska Pipeline -- before it is finished. The GAO suggests that all federal financing be stopped midway through the first of the project's two phases so that the project can be reassessed.

Although most public officials tend to waltz very carefully around any criticism of public works projects in their own districts, Sen. Charles H. Percy (R) of Illinois has willingly joined the critics in an effort to enforce what he sees as the recent election's mandate to end "wasteful and irresponsible spending." This week in Chicago he endorsed the recommendations of a citizen advisory group to halt most further action until existing parts of the plan are pilot tested and strict state water quality standards are carefully reviewed.

Chicago, like a number of other older cities, has combined sewers which carry both rainwater and normal sewage. The problem is their limited capacity. Overflows caused by rain and snow frequently send the combined waste -- often before it is fully treated -- into the Chicago River and its tributaries. To prevent flooding the locks separating the river from Lake Michigan have had to be opened an average of once a year over the last 20 years.

The Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), the formal name for "Deep Tunnel," is a pollution and flood control project to assure that all the waste water is treated before it goes into the rivers and to sharply reduce basement flooding for Chicago area homeowners, a problem that causes $25 million worth of damage annually.

TARP's critics, while not arguing that a solution to these problems is unnecessary, do suggest there may be cheaper alternatives. They also argue that water quality standards for the rivers and tributaries in question are, in effect, too high. Why, they ask, should these waterways be made pure enough for fishing and swimming (a stipulation of the 1972 Clean Water Act) when they are more likely to be frequented by continuing barge traffic than by recreation enthusiasts?

"I don't think we're willing to pay the cost of that," says Senator Percy.

Those closely involved in the project, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- which has been supplying most of the funds for the first phase -- and the Chicago Metropolitan Sanitary District, are by no means totally opposed to the suggestions being made by opponents.

In response to the longtime criticism coming its way, the EPA has recently reviewed its own involvement with the project. The final draft of its report points to dangerous environmental hazards which could be created by the project and concludes that even at the project's close, several of the waterways in question may actually be no more fishable or swimmable than they now are.

But TARP critics say they realize that it is difficult for an agency to revise its own standards and stress that their real hope lies with new Reagan appointees to the agency.

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