Rio-Niteroi Tunnel – A 1950’s dream

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Revista da Semana
Reporting by Sérgio Andrade
January 23, 1956

The astonishingly dizzying development that has been occurring, during the post-war period, in Rio de Janeiro and Niterói, especially in regards to freight transit (inland from the states to the coast), has been a pivotal problem for which the government is having a lot of trouble finding solutions. In recent years, the number of vehicles from the hinterland has grown alarmingly. Greater ease and safety in locomotion are thus being demanded. Access routes to vital points will soon be insufficient and rare. Two entry super-highways (President Dutra and Amaral Peixoto), which are gathering up and facilitating the extra traffic caused by this brutal flow, are being torn apart.

A consequence of these roads is the greater development in the exportation of products for merchants and industrialists in the hinterland. The cargo overload present in the two cities, heading out to the rest of the country and abroad encounters a gap of natural interconnection – the Guanabara Bay – to be overcome. Due to the topographical condition of the two capitals (embedded in the middle of the Serra da Mar) it is impossible to build bridges, which can only be done on flat terrain.

Formed in 1955, the commission for the drafting of the project already decided that only an underwater tunnel would solve the problem satisfactorily. Complete pessimism. Only here, an initiative of this kind would be thus received. Unfortunately, we have never had experiences of this nature before. Groups of defeatists set out to try to bring down the project, but the commission, without listening to rumors and with the support of then-President Café Filho, started work on the preparation of the bidding notice. Commercial representatives from the United States, Belgium, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and France, technical nations in matters relating to underwater constructions, would be sent copies of the notice, to study and budget. All companies submitted projects – the (French) winner presented an exceptional project, with a base budget of forty-one million dollars.

The definitive route, on the Rio side, will end at Praça Mauá; in Niterói, at Avenida Feliciano Sodré. Djalma Nunes, a journalist and chairman of the Pró-Túnel Committee, who has no technical knowledge, drew a line (the shortest) between Gragoatá and the Airport. Unfortunately it was unpractical, due to the ocean depths found along the route.

Inadequate and insufficient surface transport, which increased in 1950, continues to grow. A submarine tunnel will handle 3,600 vehicles per hour, meaning an advantage of speed (seven minutes for crossing) and safety for both the cargo and people, and accelerating progress in transportation even more.

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The Tunnel has a “long beard”

Truly, the thought of uniting Rio de Janeiro to Niterói through Guanabara is not a recent one. In search of the past, we found the first documents dated to 1878, belonging to the Duke of Caxias’ office. Later that same year, a famous English engineer, passing through Rio, elaborates a plan and sends a letter to the Director of Public Works, provoking surprise in the inhabitants of both capitals, [fazendo os velhos consolheiros cofiarem as barbichas, desconfiados e descrentes…]. With the republic, newspapers, magazines, and groups of anonymous idealists continued, more enthusiastically, to see whether the government was interested in such a construction project. The following lines could constitute a chronological scheme of the tunnel:

1876 — March 4th. In the office of the Duke of Caxias, a document is signed by Tomás Coelho granting to Hamilton Landsay Bucknall the privilege of construction, use and enjoyment of a submarine tunnel, for the term of fifty years, connecting the Court to Niterói.

1876 — November 30th. Peter W. Barlow, a notable engineer of very bold construction projects, writes a letter to the Director of Public Works, expressing his technical opinion of the perfect feasibility of executing an underwater tunnel through Guanabara Bay. The reasons for the construction? Very important ones: The large-scale flow of products from the inland States; ease of driving safety for the inhabitants of the capitals; exchange of small-scale trade. It was just a suggestion …

1920 — In the course of the [presidential] administration of Mr. Epitácio Pessoa, with Carlos Sampaio as mayor of the city, the construction hypothesis is again proposed. The first geological plans of the bay are put together. [Being that it was] a private initiative, lacking know-how at the time, discouragement overcame the ideal.

1932 — Suspension bridges, the great development in engineering, constituted the era. Idealist thought looked again at the solution. Proposals, mostly private, flock to the tiny room where the City Planners operated. As proof, pictures and models of famous bridges around the world accompanied the builders’ plans. They were never studied. The conflicting opinions of the military ministries definitively cut aspirations. Bridges would be the object of easy access from enemy fire in times of war. And in case of damage, the time spent on the repairs would take months, or years, and obstruct navigation.

1950 — With the question raised during the administration of Mr. Getúlio Vargas, enthusiasts and journalists from the two coastal capitals struggled incessantly, hoping that the government would organize a commission in order to carry out the project. [Era contudo, tomado erroneamente o princípio desta grandiosa obra, onde, ao valor industrial e comercial se sobrepunha o puramente turístico.]

1952 — The President of the Republic resolves to create a law, constituting a commission composed of three engineers, designated to study the possibility of doing the project. From the city of Niterói, the engineer Salo Brand, Director of Public Works for the State. From Rio de Janeiro, the engineer Raul Marques de Azevedo, from the City Planning Department. From the Ministry of Transport and Public Works, the engineer Gilberto Canedo de Magalhães, director of the Department of Ports, Rivers and Channels.

1955 — On January 28th, work began, preparing notices for a public bid. They are later sent to the US, France, Belgium, Germany, Japan and Holland.

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What is a Submarine Tunnel

Identical to the other existing types, the Rio-Niterói tunnel, with its characteristics, resembles the most recent one built in the world, the 5,000 meters long Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel, the fourth to connect Manhattan to the New York coast. It’s composed of two parallel cylinders, each with two one-way lanes. One of them, at a uniform speed of forty-five miles per hour, is designed for heavy loads. The other is for passenger and collective vehicles, at sixty miles. For the maintenance of this constant and uniform flow, every 200 to 250 meters, police are posted, which, through internal communication and light-signaling, transmit any irregularities to the entrances and exits. The fluorescent lighting gradually increases from the center to the exits, permitting a perfect setting for drivers’ eyes.

The circulation of air is perfect. The pure air, brought by the inflow station towers, is injected by conduits into the curbs. The stale air is sucked up by anemostats cut into the roof of the tunnel, forming vertical air currents, preventing the horizontal expansion of gases or flames. This system, controlled at a distance, and high precision gear, automatically prevent possible accidents. For cleaning, changing parts, washing, etc., the possibility of closing one of the tunnels is being studied. With days and advisories shown,  the traffic starts to flow through one tunnel only. In the interim, shifts of workers perform all the necessary repairs. The administration building, toll booths, machines for drainage of rainwater or debris are located at one of the openings. [As saídas são afloradas em areas livres, distantes do congestionado tráfego, verificando-se rápido desafogo dos veículos pelas estradas elevadas de alta velocidade.]

Three or Four years for construction – Two billion cruzeiros

The tunnel project, in accordance with the results of the competition, should be carried out within a maximum of eight months. It consists of, in general, the geological and geophysical survey of the terrain, traffic statistics, economics, details, technical conditions for construction, inspection and the final draft. Initially budgeted at US$41 million (about Cr$2 billion cruzeiros) the tunnel (of which there are two) will have a cylindrical shape, embedded in granite at the bottom of the bay, with an average diameter of ten meters. The traffic lanes will be 6.5 meters between the curbs. There will be a side walkway for policing and enforcement. The total height will be 4.1 meters. The underwater extension to the outcrops will be 6,000 meters. The maximum depth, 89 meters.

Drilled from the Rio side, construction work will be performed at the openings, at the Morro de São Bento, below ground, passing laterally to the Ministry of the Navy, Rua São Gerardo, formerly Lloyd Brasileiro. From there it will form a large curve, passing close by the lighthouse of the breakwater at the Ilha das Cobras, continuing until meeting up with the excavations from Niterói. These will be started in a straight line, at Avenida Feliciano Sodré, Praia Grande and landfill to be carried out on the border to the state capital. Drilling machines and complete equipment will be used for the continuity of the project.

A maximum of 3,000 Brazilian workers will be used. Only the technical supervision will be foreign. Almost all engineers are Brazilians. The stations for the circulation of air will be located at the lighthouse on Ilha das Cobras, the opening of Praça Mauá, the basin near the Amarração hill, and at the opening at Feliciano Sodré.

The administration buildings, toll booths and repair stations in general, will be located in Niterói (there is no vacant area in Rio), so as not to obstruct the large amount of traffic. The land taken from the neighboring capital will be used as landfill. The problem that has not yet been resolved is where the landfill will be deposited in Rio. After all, if you make a hole, you must know where the dirt will be placed…

Impossibility of accidents

Collisions are non-existent in the records of occurrences for submarine tunnels. The uniform speed of the vehicle in the same direction do not cause head-on collisions. On the sides, on the other hand, they are almost impossible, since a motor vehicle cannot move to another lane when inside the tunnel. Engine problems do not cause difficulties: either the vehicle gets repaired on the spot, or it’s towed outside.

In the United States a truck loaded with explosives caught fire inside the Lincoln Tunnel, causing general panic, and consequent disharmony in the flow of traffic. Immediately the internal phones rang, and traffic was stopped. As the cars were distanced from the scene, the hoses were in action. With the traffic on the other road unobstructed, help came quickly, while people were diverted to the lateral walkways. The ventilation system (vertical currents) prevented the flames from propagating horizontally, at the time they were sucked out by the anemostats in the ceiling. From then on, no more explosive or incendiary cargo traffic was allowed.

Also, in the Rio-Niterói tunnel, the passage of trams, animal-driven trolleys, or caterpillar machines will also not be permitted. Everything is so precisely controlled inside these tunnels, that an occurrence of serious proportions can be remedied within minutes.

500 employed in the tunnel

Divided into administration, tolls, policing, ventilation, repairs and conservation, etc, the tunnel will hold, after it’s complete, 500 employees:

Administration  – 50 people
Tolls – 20 people
Policing – 150 people
Ventilation – 200 people
Repairs – 50 people
Conservation – 30 people

All of these people will be split into work shifts, where rigid schedules and maximum responsibility will constitute the element of continuity for the life of the submarine artery.

The tolls

The criterion adopted from here on will have to be the same used in North American tunnels. By changing the currency and perpetuating the differences in surface transportation, it is possible to fit the price of tolls for various types of existing vehicles into a table. In a few years, when the construction work is done, the prices will undergo small changes:

Passenger cars – Cr$ 20,00
Two-axel trucks – Cr$ 30,00
Three-axel trucks – Cr$ 70,00
Four-axel trucks – Cr$ 90,00
Common Bus – Cr$ 30,00
Cargo Bus – Cr$ 60,0
Special Bus – Cr$ 60,00
Micro-buses – Cr$ 40,00
Motorcycles – Cr$ 15,00

Inevitably, these prices are estimates for the present, but at the same time they are decreasing in direct proportion to the increase of vehicle movement and years elapsed until the moment the invested capital is recovered. On this occasion, transportation will be free.


This is not news to anyone: Rio de Janeiro and Niterói only make people consume merchandise. They don’t even produce them for a strictly needed supply. With the tunnel, the lowering of product prices will become immediate. Ease of transferring goods and people will bring new horizons not only for us but for the rest of the country. The development of the small farmer will be noticeable. The secondary roads along large highways entry points will acquire incredible value. The opportunity to exchange products will grow even more. The international port will benefit enormously, and tourism will be greatly promoted.

Collective transport routes will arise, linking Gragoatá to Copacabana, Tijuca to Icaraí, Leopoldina to Saco de São Francisco, Flamengo to São Gonçalo. For Rio de Janeiro, the Municipality’s Department of Urban Planning foresees the construction of a high-speed lane above Rodrigues Alves Avenue, especially for heavy cargo coming from the tunnel, in the direction of the port and Presidente Dutra Highway. The Praça Mauá, even with the contention of the non-believers, will receive for the first time, a solution capable of dealing with the traffic problem in downtown Rio. It will become a constant traffic funnel, with six rows of vehicles, flowing to Avenida Rodrigues Alves, Rio Branco, Rua Acre Street, Rua Sacaduro Cabral and an interchange for the overpass.

According to calculations, the tunnel will allow 3,600 vehicles per hour. One-thousand, four hundred for cargo and 2,200 passenger cars. In eight consecutive hours, 28,800 vehicles will pass through it, with 11,200 being for cargo. Divided the cargo load into six-ton trucks, we’ll have the traffic of 76,200,000 kilos of Brazilian products in eight hours. Fantastic, is it not? The only hope is that this is not a dream or just rambling.


There were a few sections above that I was hesitant to translate due to not fully grasping parts of certain sentences.


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