Going underground: Blanka opens to public
Blanka Tunnel opens its doors to the public for a day; controversial project is expected to be completed in 2014
Posted: October 3, 2012
It might have been one of the more bizarre ways to spend St. Wenceslas Day, a Czech national holiday, but thousands of Prague residents chose to swap the glorious sunshine above ground for the dark and damp corridors of Blanka Tunnel, as the controversial transport project laid itself open to an enthusiastic general public Sept. 28.
Starting near Vítězné náměstí in Prague 6-Dejvice, young and old alike walked or cycled their way down 5 kilometers of passageways, reaching depths of up to 25 meters below street level, where they caught a glimpse of some of the technology that will be used when the first vehicles pass through in just under two years' time.
Employees from construction company Metrostav were on hand to answer any questions about the project, which has been plagued by delays and financial difficulties since work began four years ago. Organizers estimated 21,000 people attended the open day, a slight increase on last year's event, although then the tunnel was only partially accessible.
"We had a very good feeling about the day," said Metrostav spokesman František Polák. "Overall, the reaction was positive, and we even had to close the entrance gate for a while because the tour routes were so crowded."
"Projects like Blanka are built for the community. This definitely isn't the work of some 'cement lobby,' as we hear so often in the media," he added.
Guided by floodlights and surrounded by concrete, visitors descended deep into the bowels of the tunnel, tracking their progress with maps provided at the entrance. Along the way, they observed both arteries of the two- to three-lane road section, as well as areas set aside for seven computer-controlled technology centers, a huge air ventilation system and two underground car parks.
According to engineers, the largest of these car parks, under football team Sparta Praha's Generali Arena, will have capacity for some 800 vehicles. It is hoped the tunnel, which is aimed at easing congestion around the city center in conjunction with the planned Prague Ring Road, will cut journey times by as much as 15 minutes. Prague Major Bohuslav Svoboda says there are several advantages.
"We can assume Blanka Tunnel will divert 70,000 cars away from Prague's city center every day, and drivers will save 1.6 million liters of fuel annually," Svoboda told The Prague Post. "Noise and pollution will also be reduced. Talking to people here, they can't wait for the tunnel to open."
While most of the digging work is now complete, the asphalt surface still needs to be laid and ceramic tiles added to the complex's bare concrete walls, ahead of a period of testing due next year. Despite the project's much-publicized problems, visitors acknowledged that finally, and in more ways than one, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
"I think it will be very useful," said public procurer Barbora Skalle, speaking after the tour. "It will really help the transport system in Prague. Czech people will always have problems with the price of the tunnel, but I think they will finally accept it and be happy that it's here."
"I thought it was great of Metrostav to actually have people come through and see the process," said English teacher Cisco Walker. "It's good they tried to get a little bit more participation and show this is not that easy to do."
A competition to win MP3 players and flashlights helped keep the younger visitors entertained, while on the other side of the unfinished Trója Bridge that will eventually cross the Vltava River, Olympic beach volleyball stars Markéta Sluková and Kristýna Kolocová were waiting to sign autographs.
"My parents live on the side of Prague where the tunnel starts, so it will definitely be a great shortcut for me," Sluková said.
Covering a distance of 6,382 meters, Blanka is set to become the longest municipal tunnel complex in Europe once it opens for business May 1, 2014. However, getting to that date has not been a smooth process.
Originally slated to cost no more than 26 billion Kč - a sum guaranteed by then-Prague Mayor Pavel Bém in 2007 - the project has gone massively over budget. In February 2011, amid rising construction and technology costs, Svoboda revealed the final price would increase more than a third to 37 billion Kč, a hike that represented 20 percent of the city's entire annual budget.
"We could not have predicted the added expenditure, because the geological conditions of the bedrock in Prague are very complicated," Svoboda said.
Although the figure has now come down to about 36 billion Kč, residents have also been left concerned by a series of onsite accidents. The tunnel collapsed three times during the digging phase, including twice in 2008 at Stromovka Park, causing craters in the middle of a protected natural area and raising questions about the safety of the project.
Opposition to the construction of an underground road tunnel stretches way back to 1989, when environmental campaigners put a stop to the original plans. Vratislav Filler, a traffic expert from the independent urban planning body Auto*Mat, says his organization has disapproved of the project since the beginning.
"Blanka is a massive burden for Prague's budget," he said. "Without it, more money could be spent on new tram lines, better cycling infrastructure or the long-awaited metro D line."
- Tomáš Rákos contributed to this report.
Jonathan Crane can be reached at