Tunnel Fever

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: February 2013
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Phoenicians who enjoy underground haunts – or merely the opportunity to toot their own horn – savor entering Downtown from the south via the Central Avenue underpass. Built in 1939 to circumvent both the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroad tracks, the subterranean corridor has evolved into one of the city’s most notable wormholes. “It’s a passage from one era to another, from an Art Moderne structure to a modern 20th-century city of tall glass buildings,” historian Donna Reiner says. “The effect is even greater at twilight.”

Both railways were treacherous impediments for the 10,000 autos that typically passed into south Phoenix on Central Avenue in the mid-1930s. Accidents were common. Reg Manning, the cartoonist for the Arizona Republic, regularly satirized the crossing, drawing cars rearing and plunging like bucking broncos over the multi-track traffic hazard. 

First proposed in 1928, construction on the four-lane underpass began 11 years later, after the city secured the right-of-way. Despite a labor strike, the underpass opened in 1940 with fanfare – speeches, a parade, and a street dance. Boy Scouts distributed commemorative windshield decals to the first 5,000 vehicles driving through. The streamlined structure featured cast concrete winged motifs and “Central Avenue” rendered in aluminum letters on corbelled pylons. Built with $250,000 in federal funds, the underpass was a safe and speedy pathway that facilitated development of the warehouse district and south Phoenix.