After five years and $700 million, state highway officials announced yesterday that the Fort McHenry tunnel is scheduled to open in eight weeks.

The tunnel, which is the most expensive single highway project in the United States, will finish $100 million under budget.

"A friend of mine bet it would cost $1 billion by the time we finished," said project manager Kenneth Merrill of the city's Interstate Division. "He owes me dinner."

Nearly 3,000 workers put together the 1.7-mile tunnel with 100 million pounds of steel, 3 billion pounds of concrete and 8 million ceramic tiles.

The eight-lane tunnel runs from I-95 at Leland Street in Canton, curves beneath the harbor and around Fort McHenry, then resurfaces again at Andre Street and I-95 in Locust Point.

Officials said the tunnel will relieve some of the backups at the 24-year-old Harbor Tunnel and provide a faster route from I-95 to the downtown area than either Pulaski Highway or I-83.

"It's kind of sad now," Merrill said. "The tunnel was really a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Now, it's kind of like coming down from a high."

Tolls will be collected for at least the next 30 years. The $1 fee will be collected on the eastern end of the tunnel.

Originally, the tunnel was to have been a bridge, but Locust Point residents thought a bridge would take away from the charm of Fort McHenry.

Shirley Doda led the protest against the bridge proposal from her home on Fort Avenue. She picketed the White House, staged a colonial parade and coordinated bus rides to the City Council to fight the bridge.

"I think the city got embarrassed that we had to fight to save a national monument and shrine," Doda said. "The tunnel was a good compromise."