Construction defects in new Midtown Tunnel causing tension with builder?

Posted at 6:56 PM, Dec 13, 2013

A NewsChannel 3 Investigation uncovered a flurry of emails through a Freedom of Information Act Request, written by Elizabeth River Crossings managers addressing problems popping up with the new Midtown Tunnel.

"I'm still confused about the root cause of the issue, or if anyone really knows what exactly occurred."

"We should make an issue of this. Hiding defects is atypical in construction. If we let it ride SKW engineers will construe this as acceptable."

So NewsChannel 3 asked Dan Norman, ERC’s Assistant Construction Director, if there is tension between all the parties involved in building.

“No, there is no tension. There is a healthy partnership between VDOT, ERC and SKW,” said Norman.

So how does this partnership work?

Concrete cracks and joint leaks plague construction of new Midtown Tunnel

VDOT entered into a $2.1 billion contract with Elizabeth River Crossings, who will operate and maintain the two tunnels for 58 years.

ERC, in turn, contracted out to SKW Constructors to actually build the new Midtown Tunnel.

Under their agreement, VDOT has oversight over both ERC and SKW operations.

But in the end, ERC is ultimately responsible for SKW delivering a properly built tunnel.

Hence their concern when mistakes pop up and they are not alerted immediately.

"I keep getting beat up by ERC and VDOT that we aren't being transparent and sharing issues that arise in a timely manner..."

That email to tunnel builders comes from an ERC quality assurance consultant hired to oversee construction of the new Midtown tunnel.

After hair-sized concrete cracks and tunnel joint leaks, he is now finding out about a metal end frame being built one inch too high.

"Evidently there is a proposed solution being bounced around; but QA/QC has been basically left out in the dark on what could be a major concern...again."

“It’s healthy discourse,” said Norman. “The construction site for tunnel elements is in Baltimore, and getting that information sometimes can be a challenge. We have really high standards for communication and that’s what you are seeing there…at times, conversations can be animated, but everyone is playing nice in the sandbox.”

More emails, though paint a different picture.

This one comes from a VDOT consultant whose site inspection found some defects.

"If they are immediately raised via the VDOT/ERC route, SKW and the QA/QC teams will start to get very defensive, will stop being open and site relations will get (more) difficult."

“I think he is talking about normal relationships,” said Norman. “What you just see is him there raising concerns. He doesn't want to hurt his on-site relationship, and wants to make sure he doesn't burn those bridges.”

So where is VDOT in all this?

Hampton Roads District Administrator Jim Utterback says they are staying out of the squabbling for now.

“If they clearly don’t meet a requirement, they have to come to VDOT and request a waiver of the project specifications, and we would deal with it then,” said Utterback, who stressed the construction is still in its early stages.

Utterback also says that although VDOT has oversight, ERC holds all the risk for any mistakes in the new tunnel.

“They have total responsibility. We don’t accept it until it meets requirements,” said Utterback. “How they get there is up to them.”