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Concrete cracks and joint leaks plague construction of new Midtown Tunnel

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Posted at 7:37 PM, Dec 12, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-12 19:40:10-05

Concrete cracks, leaking tunnel joints and metal connection frames that came in the wrong size were all problems discovered in the construction of the new Midtown Tunnel, uncovered by an exclusive NewsChannel 3 investigation.

“We are not going to put something in the river that’s not safe,” said Jim Utterback, VDOT’s District Administrator for Hampton Roads.

Utterback did acknowledge the problems at Elizabeth River Crossings’ tunnel building operation in Maryland that NewsChannel 3 found in several emails, obtained through a Freedom of Information Request.

“As they started into the fabrication process, they had challenges with cracking,” said Utterback.

“We are talking about a human hair, you almost can't see them with naked eye,” said Dan Norman, ERC’s Assistant Construction Director, who says even though the cracks were small, they will all be fixed.

Another issue concerns the construction joints in the new tunnel.

“In order to cast new concrete against old concrete, we have a construction joint. They have a water stop, that prevents water from coming in,” said Norman.

But NewsChannel 3 discovered that those tunnel joints had leaks that could become major maintenance problems in the future.

“Our builder SKW has developed a crack mitigation plan, a crack injection plan, and will be doing a waterproofing membrane around the tunnel, which is above and beyond the project specifications,” said Norman.

Still, problems don't end there. Our investigation also revealed issues with the new tunnel segment end frames.

One of them was made one inch too high.

“These end frames are actually fabricated off site, then brought to the site and welded into place,” said Norman.

Designers assured ERC that even with the one inch mistake, the tunnel will still be aligned properly.

VDOT, however, continues to have concerns they say must be addressed before the final tunnel is delivered.

“We are concerned with their ability to meet specifications for fabricating the concrete elements,” said Utterback. “There are no do-overs. When you build these, they got to be under 55 feet of water for 120 years. There is some concern to get it right and make sure it’s safe to the traveling public.”

These internal VDOT emails obtained by NewsChannel 3 also show the Downtown Tunnel's rehabilitation has not gone as planned--like lead being found in the tunnel's ceiling.

“Let me say first off, there is no threat to public safety,” said Utterback.

Elizabeth River Crossings says the lead probably came from years of car exhaust in the tunnel, since gasoline used to contain lead.

“We identified that those lead levels were a little high, and we are taking care of it,” said Norman.

Norman also says crews discovered concrete cracks in the existing tunnel's walls, which led to small leaks.

“The leaks we have are being addressed, and they are minor, with very little weeping in the tunnels,” said Norman.

“Just keep in mind that these tunnels are existing, and they are steel encased. There are no cracks to the outside and no leaking to the steel tube,” said Utterback.

The new Midtown Tunnel tubes will not be encased in steel, because these days, it’s just too expensive.

“We will be testing them to make sure there is no leaking,” said Norman.

ERC also says all these problems will be fixed on time and at no cost to the taxpayer. VDOT says they will accept nothing less.

“They are responsible for delivering the project to us that meets the technical requirements. We will not accept anything that does not meet the technical requirements,” said Utterback.