Thursday, December 29, 2011

Madrid Rio: Highway Tunnel Project

I was lying flat on my back, sprawled across a marble platform, looking at the high ceilings above. I had just stepped off the escalator to the Metro terminal at the brand new (ridiculously large) Madrid Barajas airport,  when I slipped and fell. I was in a hurry: I could see that the next train was about to depart, but at this point I wouldn't make it in time. A custodian was mopping nearby, he came over, helped me back up, and asked me in Spanish if I was OK. I summoned up the little language training I had and asked "¿Cuando proximo tren?" He pointed wordlessly at the other track, where the doors were open on yet another train. I sheepishly schlepped my bags there, and within a few minutes, we were moving.

Riverside promenade, Madrid (source)

That was my introduction to the city of Madrid, in 2010. This past year, they completed their own version of the "Big Dig", putting the M-30 beltway underground, and restoring the Manzanares River. The project is called "Madrid Rio" and tunneling was started in 2003 as an effort to reclaim the riverfront land and improve the busy M-30 at the same time.

When I visited for a conference in 2010, I got to spend my free time exploring. I remember there being a river on the maps, and I did visit points on both sides of it, but I do not remember ever seeing the river itself. Apparently, I'm not the only person with this experience. Up until recently, the river was treated as a neglected median for the M-30. The park is so new that Google's satellite imagery still shows it under construction (as of this writing).
A highway runs beneath (source)
Already, comparisons have been made between this project and others around the world. Let's start with the basics.

Madrid Rio
Ten kilometers of tunneling, seven years of construction, 300 acres of new parks, 400 million (~$550 million) to build the park, out of approximately 4 billion (~$5 billion) for the entire project.

The Big Dig (Central Artery/Tunnel)
Over eight kilometers of tunneling, 10-20 years of construction (depends what you count), 26 acres of reclaimed space, $15 billion (or $22 billion with interest). This was really two mega-projects rolled into one, so it is difficult to compare directly. This site attributes $6.5 billion to the I-90 extension, leaving about $8.5 billion for the 5-km Central Artery.

Spain, it seems, is really good at building infrastructure cheaply. But to be fair, the project in Boston was a lot more complicated. The M-30 ran alongside the Manzanares River, which had never been an important part of the modern city of Madrid. The Big Dig took place in the heart of downtown Boston. It appears that the tunneling for the M-30 was relatively simple: not much to worry about except for some subway tunnels underneath. The Big Dig required the relocation of underground utilities, it had to thread below South Station, around both the Red Line and the Blue Line, all while supporting the weight of the Central Artery above. Madrid was willing to screw over residents during construction, in ways that would be unacceptable here in the States. I do not know to what extent this made it easier for them.

Madrid highway network (source)
The most effective way Madrid saved money, however, is by never building a city-dividing highway in the first place. The M-30 is the inner belt, and the highways that lead into the city end there. It may be hard to tell from this map, but the region within the M-30 beltway is quite large. It includes the heart of the city, and many of the inner neighborhoods. However, the outer barrios are crisscrossed by highways, and I have heard that traffic on them is quite heavy.

To counter this, Spain has been pro-active about building and maintaining public transportation. The Madrid Metro is currently sixth in the world in terms of length. I can attest that, when I visited, the system was largely clean and modern (having undergone renovation in the last ten years) and very extensive for a city of that size. This is complemented by buses as well as commuterintercity and high-speed railroad operations.

I don't know if Madrid Rio will be successful. The alleged benefits are the creation of a new river park, the revitalization of many properties abutting it, and new development to go alongside. Will Madrileños still stroll the riverside when the novelty has worn off? Perhaps: the park includes many new bridges and connections to Casa de Campo, which was cut off from the city previously. Even so, it may not be worth the cost -- which was fairly high by Spanish standards.

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