Leak in ‘aging pipes’ causes Downtown Tunnel backups during morning commute

Posted at 7:55 PM, Jan 24, 2013
and last updated 2013-01-24 19:55:57-05

Drivers as far east as Military Highway were stuck in traffic from the Downtown Tunnel this morning.

So what was the cause for the 3-hour halt in the morning commute?

“We had a minor leak develop in a pipe underneath the roadway, and that created water which ensued into a pothole, causing damage to the roadway,” said Leila Rice, spokeswoman for Elizabeth River Crossings.

Rice says their workers discovered the leak around 4:40 a.m., and determined the right hand lane where the pothole formed was not safe enough for travel.

In turn, well into the 8 a.m. hour, drivers heading west from Norfolk into Portsmouth sat in a massive backup, all trying to get through one single lane.

At first, ERC said the leak was caused by freezing temperatures, but that story changed Thursday afternoon.

“What we are finding out is that it might not have had anything to do with the cold weather, but with the age of the structure,” said Rice. “This is a 60-year-old facility, as such, infrastructure is that old, so things will happen that we can't really control.”

The Downtown Tunnel is set for a major rehab in the coming years, paid for in part by tolls.

“We are going to be working to bring them as close to modern day standards as you can with an existing facility,” said Rice.

 A new exhaust system, new lighting, and structural improvements will be coming, but will your money be used to solve the cause of Thursday’s backup?

Rice admits that there are no plans in their current VDOT contract to do anything with the old pipes.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.

ERC says the design plans for the rehab are not complete, and the company is now talking about the possibility of pipe replacement.

“We are looking at it from an operations and maintenance standpoint, and if we feel we need to repair something, we will do it,” said Rice.

Thursday morning, crews just temporarily fixed the pothole, enough to get through rush hour.

Thursday night, they will be doing permanent repairs to the roadway, which means an unexpected lane closure for late night drivers.

The right-hand westbound of the Downtown Tunnel will be closed at 10 p.m., and is expected to reopen before 5 a.m. Friday morning, in time for the rush hour commute.