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A Solution to Paris’ Clogged Traffic? Put It Underground

March 1, 1990

PARIS (AP) _ The French think they may have a solution to Paris’ notoriously clogged traffic - put it underground.

″Like all the big European cities, we’ve reached saturation point,″ said Jean-Michel Gambard, chief of the roads department for the government’s Center of Urban Transport Studies and one of those reviewing futuristic plans for privately funded and operated underground roadways.

″There’s a constant jam and all the classical solutions of wider roads and more roads aren’t working. They just cause more congestion.″

Prime Minister Michel Rocard has endorsed the concept, saying it could make more room on the streets for pedestrians and buses.

The idea goes back to 1987 when the engineering firm GTM-Entrepose submitted its plan to Mayor Jacques Chirac, at the time also France’s prime minister.

Called the Underground Regional Express Automobile Link and known by its high-tech French acronym LASER, the project envisions about 30 miles of roadway 100 to 165 feet below the surface.

Drivers will enter the system through 20 access points around Paris and its suburbs and descend into a tubular, double-decked road system with three lanes of traffic heading in both directions.

Traffic now creeps along at about 10 mph but officials expect it would move at about 40 mph underground.

Cars will surface at key points like the Champs-Elysee and the Montparnasse train station or shoot directly across Paris to the ring motorway that bypasses the city’s center.

Video cameras would keep an eye on the traffic and computer-controlled gates would close off entrances after accidents. Police and firefighters on foot could enter the tunnels at emergency entrances every 875 yards.

″LASER is a Metro concept for cars,″ said Andre Broto, GTM-Entrepose’s chief engineer, referring to Paris’ subway system. ″We believe that in 15 or 20 years, each suburb, each district, will have its LASER station.″

Drivers would be charged a toll, ranging from 10 francs ($1.72) at night to 20 francs ($3.44) at rush hour.

″We are selling time to our customers,″ Broto said. ″It appears there are a lot of people willing to pay. Sooner or later, all of us are in a hurry.″

Mayor Chirac has expressed interest in both LASER and its chief rival, a project called Hysope submitted by the giant Bouygues construction group in December.

Both rely on private financing, with LASER costing about 16 billion francs ($2.76 billion) in its first stages and the Bouygues project weighing in at 15 billion to 18 billion francs ($2.58 billion to $3.10 billion).

The main difference between the two is that the Bouygues project doesn’t let cars exit downtown and forces drivers to leave their vehicles in underground parking lots - addressing Chirac’s concern to rid the capital of parked cars.

Last fall, Chirac announced plans to eliminate 100,000 parking spaces to free up new lanes for surface traffic and discourage car ownership.

But neither LASER nor Hysope would cure all the city’s transportation ills. The plans would eliminate only 15 percent of the 1 million cars that come from the suburbs to the city center each day, mixing in with 1.4 million already here.

Critics fear, however, the relatively empty streets would only encourage more people to drive.

″The object should be to recuperate the places freed by the cars for other things,″ said Gambard, the roads department head. ″It’s necessary not just to have a road underneath the ground, but a global plan on buses, pedestrians, parking and trains.″

He added: ″Before the war everyone rode bicylces. Now the cars make that impossible. Maybe someday we’ll be able to see bicycles again.″

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