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Can new road tunnels sort congestion in Brussels?

Local people thronged to see the completion of renovation work in the new Annie Cordy Tunnel

Can new road tunnels sort congestion in Brussels?

Brussels has a congestion problem. Virtually every day of the working week traffic grinds to a halt during the rush hour.  Is there anything that can be done about it?  Can extra road tunnels help to divert traffic and sort this problem?

Over the years, tunnels have been built to create space to allow various different forms of transport. Plans for the North-South Rail Link that links the North and South Stations via the new Central Station were mooted as early as the middle of the 19th century and work even started before the Great War.  Two World Wars delayed progress and the North South Link was only able to open in 1952. 

In the 50s and 60s the large crowds expected for the world fair, Expo 58, in 1958, and the rise of car travel led to the construction of numerous road tunnels across the agglomeration, while in the 70s Brussels built its first metro links.

Despite the existence of all this underground infrastructure, traffic in Brussels is still pretty hectic. We have the means to add new tunnels to the existing network, but Brussels stands on swampy ground and for tunnels to be built, sound subsoil is needed.  It cannot be done everywhere.

Nowadays a tunnel boring machine is used to dig the new tunnels needed for metro line 3. This machine digs the tunnel, drains the earth and constructs a concrete tube. This is done almost entirely underground and there is no disruption to life above ground. Unfortunately, this cannot be done everywhere, especially not in places where the ground proves too unstable.

New road tunnels are unlikely for several reasons. First of all there is the ginormous construction cost. Moreover, the maintenance of existing tunnels does not come cheaply either!

The price tag for renovating the old Leopold II Tunnel – now Annie Cordy Tunnel – came to 512 million euros. The renovation work was necessary; pieces of concrete were falling from the tunnel ceiling onto the road below posing a danger to the 80,000 cars, which enter Brussels through that tunnel every working day.

The Brussels Mobility Agency is currently renovating many more tunnels in the Belgian and Flemish capital. So if you want new tunnels, apart from the cost of building them, you also need to consider future maintenance costs.


“Not the future”

Mobility expert Michel Hubert argues that new road tunnels will not solve Brussels’ mobility problem. "Large infrastructures place a heavy burden on current and future generations," Hubert says. "There’s an additional problem: road tunnels attract even more cars."

Especially now at a time when the role of the car in Brussels’ mobility is being questioned, Hubert says it is not a sensible idea to invest in new road tunnels.

Inge Paemen of Brussels Mobility expresses similar views: "We won’t be building any new tunnels in Brussels in the near future, especially not for cars. The mobility project Good Move increasingly puts the focus on other means of transport."

Creating extra space for cars with tunnels goes against the grain of Brussels’ current vision of mobility.

This article is based on an article published by Brussels media outlet BRUZZ in its Big City series.

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