Nothing They Plan To Do Will Be Impossible
— Genesis 11:6
I enjoy old movies. They have the stuff that dreams are made of. Newer films, with computer animation and all the technical bells and whistles, often lack imaginative or adventurous thinking. Not that contemporary film-makers aren’t creative, but for something that will stimulate my imagination and get me dreaming of possibilities, there’s no movie like an old movie.
Recently my wife and I watched a science fiction film from 1936 entitled, “Transatlantic Tunnel”. Set in the near future (1940), television and video phone calls were shown as commonplace, and automobiles and airplanes were given sleek, modernistic designs. But given even more importance were the scientific discoveries and technology that made the construction of a transatlantic tunnel possible.
Subtexts made this an interesting film. The funding of the project came from private stock holders, and yet at the same time, there was tremendous national pride in the undertaking, both from the United Kingdom and from the United States. Scenes depicting the actual construction of the tunnel showed a certain value for labor. And despite the great rock-cutting equipment, the work was labor-intensive. So all the virtues of society were required to accomplish this dream: the cooperation of governments, the knowledge of scientists, the skills of engineers, the backing of financiers and the hands-on work of the common laborer.
The movie left me with a sense of wonder. I wondered if such a project were possible. And I wondered if it would be worth the cost. Some achievements cost more than they are worth, such as the SSTs. They offered a fast service which an insufficient number of customers could afford. And some achievements are soon eclipsed by newer advances in technology. The longest and deepest rail tunnel in the world — the Seikan Tunnel in Japan — gets less traffic than airlines spanning the same route, not something that was anticipated when the tunnel was first planned and designed. The competition between different means of shipping, i.e. highway, rail, air or sea, is also an important consideration when examining the cost and benefits of building a transatlantic tunnel.
So I spent a little time on the internet learning about tunnels, how long it takes to dig them and how much it costs. The following sums up what I learned:
The Gotthard Base Tunnel, being bored through the Swiss Alps, was begun in 1996 and is scheduled to be completed in 2016. It will be the world’s longest rail tunnel, at over 94 miles. Its estimated construction will average 4.7 miles per year. As of 2010, construction has cost $10.1 billion or about $721.4 million per year. By it’s completion in 2016 the total cost will be about $14.4 billion. (All my figures are approximations based on information anyone can glean from the internet. Please check the math, if you are so inclined.)
The Chunnel, connecting Britain and France is over 31 miles long. It goes as deep as 148 feet below the sea bed and 250 feet below sea level. Costing $21 billion, it only took about six years to complete, averaging about 5 miles per year at $3.5 billion a year.
The Seikan Tunnel in Japan is over 33 miles long, costing only $7 billion. It goes as deep as 460 feet below the sea bed and 790 feet below sea level. It took about 17 years to build, averaging about 2 miles per year but only costing about $412 million per year.
I used this data to help me envision building a transatlantic tunnel.
The average depth of the Atlantic Ocean (with its adjacent seas) is 10,950 feet, almost 14 times deeper than the Seikan Tunnel. Plus, a tunnel between New york and London would span 3,462 miles as the crow flies, almost 22 times the combined lengths of the above three tunnels. Of course, that distance could be reduced to something closer to 2,000 miles, if the tunnel went from Britain to Nova Scotia instead, as the first transatlantic telegraph cable did. But how many people want to go to Nova Scotia?
Not taking into account the specific geological obstacles to be surmounted in plotting a route for such a tunnel (stability of rock formations, fault lines, variances in elevation, etc.) at the rate of 5 miles per year, a transatlantic tunnel would be projected to take some 692 years (only 346 years, at the rate of 10 miles per year). Nova Scotia is starting to look promising.
If that were not sufficient to discourage the most optimistic dreamer of a tunnel connecting North America to Europe, guessing at the cost of such a project is even more speculative. How can one anticipate financing such a behemoth project, since it would span centuries of fluctuating economic standards and uncertain, changing financial systems? But, ignoring life-support and safety systems costs, one might project a baseline total estimate for the cost of a transatlantic tunnel by averaging costs of the three above tunnel projects. My conservative estimate, $1.543 billion a year for 692 years, would come to $1,067,756,000,000, or $1.068 trillion. Wow!
But wait a minute. Our national debt is more than 14 times that — $15.4 trillion! Right now, we are already trying to pay down a bill equivalent to more than 14 transatlantic tunnels! And more disappointing than that, our Mother Homeland government (I can’t bring myself to say Fatherland) isn’t really making an effort to pay off the debt. And if we ever do pay off that debt, we still won’t have a transatlantic tunnel to show for it, despite having paid for it fourteen times over!
Raising the debt limit, increasing taxes, spending more… Think of all the tunnels (and other big dreams) we’ll never see, as long as those in charge remain in charge.
[UPDATE] As of February 2020 our national debt is now $23.4 trillion, meaning that in 8 years it has increased 8 trillion. If Bernie is elected President, or if the Green New Deal is enacted, this will amount to chicken feed.