VDOT knew $3.6 million project to fix MMMBT might fail

Posted at 5:55 PM, Jan 30, 2013
and last updated 2013-01-31 06:32:55-05

The power of water is no match for top engineers here in Hampton Roads.

It’s what VDOT is realizing the hard way, after they spent $3.6 million to try and stop potholes in the Monitor Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel.

$3.6 million, that in the end, did not actually fix the problem.

NewsChannel 3 first told you about the project last March.

VDOT's contractors ripped out asphalt and concrete slabs at the entrances and exits to both sides of the tunnel, then cleaned and resealed joints that allow the tunnel to expand and contract.

VDOT created the plan after consulting with two companies deemed tunnel industry experts.

They thought fixing the joints would stop what they called groundwater seepage, but it didn't.

VDOT says the water soon found another way in, and new leaks caused even more potholes.

NewsChannel 3 wanted to know, why would the agency spend millions when they weren't sure if the fix would work? In addition, who at VDOT is being held accountable for this massive waste of taxpayer dollars?

We tried to go to VDOT to get those questions answered, scheduling an interview with Lauren Hansen, their public affairs manager, two days in advance.

Hansen, though, cancelled at the last moment, and was not willing to put anyone else from her staff in front of a camera.

Instead we got a statement, and in it, Hansen even admits VDOT knew the failure of their project would be a possibility.

“We were aware that the buildup of hydrostatic pressure could potentially become an issue again and are currently evaluating alternative solutions,” writes Hansen.

The new plan, according to VDOT, now involves trying to divert the groundwater into drains before they affect the roadway.

Some are skeptical that will actually work and that the water is actually ground water.

Many drivers have complained about the impact of the brackish/salt water getting on their vehicles while driving through the tunnel. How is it getting in there in the first place?

When we brought that question to VDOT, they were adamant.

"The water is basic groundwater. It is not a breach,” said Brooke Grow, another VDOT spokesperson.

*VDOT later sent us more answers to our questions…here they are in their entirety.*

1. We want to know, if you guys are looking at how to stop the groundwater now, why wasn't this done before?

The water seepage at the tunnel entrance has become progressively worse over the years. Operations maintenance crews previously addressed the issue with pothole patching at the entrances, installation of side trench drains, and other temporary methods that were less impactful to motorists. In 2009, VDOT began exploring alternatives for a long-range permanent fix. VDOT partnered with industry experts familiar with tunnel design to investigate the problem, evaluate alternatives and select a method to remedy the issue. Our engineers, consultant and contractor worked collaboratively to pump grout as a sealant at joints, seams and other areas where it was believed water was entering the roadway.  Crews then rebuilt the roadway approaches and repaved.

It was successful for a short time following the completion of the work.  However, it appears that while the project plugged many of the avenues water was entering the roadway, the reduction in the number of water infiltration points increased the hydrostatic water pressure and the water found additional outlets.  Our project activities cannot be so large that we disrupt the traffic more than we already have.  VDOT staff is continuing to evaluate alternatives and is working to develop a project that will further mitigate this issue.

2. Any person on the street knows that if you don't stop water, anything you do inside the tunnel will be worthless.

The tunnel is safe. The tunnel is not leaking and the tunnel itself is sound. The issue that VDOT is most concerned about is potholes due to water intrusion at the portal weakening the asphalt adjacent to the tunnel entrances.

3. How much more money will be used in the future?

At this point a cost estimate would be premature. Staff is continuing to evaluate alternatives and is working to develop a project that will further mitigate this issue.

4. And who is being held accountable for this failure?

This is not an issue of accountability. Alternatives were evaluated with top tunnel design experts. The project was developed based on this evaluation. The contractor completed the work per the contract specifications. This has been a progressive ongoing problem. The solution, while sound, did not fully resolve the issue.

5. That 3.6 million could have been used in other places, like those craters you have on 264 in Norfolk.

VDOT has to balance many priorities and pavement needs across the Region. The pavement issues at the tunnel entrances needed to be addressed. There are currently multiple awarded projects valued at approximately $10 million to fix pavement issues on I-264 over the next 24-months. We anticipate programming another $17 million worth of projects in the fall to address additional issues on I-264.