Ready for a meltdown

Published 10:55 pm Thursday, August 8, 2013

Commuters prepare for tunnel closures

By R.E. Spears III and William Scott

With the Virginia Department of Transportation and Elizabeth River Crossings set tonight to begin a series of weekend closures of the Downtown Tunnel, folks around Hampton Roads are bracing themselves for problems.

“I don’t own a helicopter, so I can’t fly over it,” Brooks Wotring joked in North Suffolk on Wednesday. “It’s going to be terrible. People are going to have to go towards the (Jordan) Bridge.”

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The Jordan Bridge is one of several recommended alternate routes suggested by officials at Elizabeth River Crossings during the weekend westbound lane closures, which are scheduled through the spring.

Scheduled improvements include installation of a jet fan ventilation system, LED tunnel lighting, fireproofing the tunnel for structural protection and relocation of fire alarms, extinguishers and hydrants to provide easier access, according to the Elizabeth River Crossings website.

ERC is the company that has been contracted by VDOT to complete the renovations on the Downtown tube and to build a second tube at the Midtown Tunnel.

Motorists during this phase of the work are being directed to the I-64 High Rise Bridge, the Midtown Tunnel, the Gilmerton Bridge and the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge as alternatives.

Officials with the privately owned Jordan Bridge, which normally charges a $3 toll for each crossing — or $1.50 for those with E-ZPass — are offering free travel for drivers this weekend in an effort to convince motorists of the viability of that crossing as an alternative.

“Our goal is to help alleviate congestion at neighboring routes, while introducing diverted drivers to the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge during the initial weekend closure,” General Manager Kevin Crum said in a press release.

“We hope that new drivers will recognize the benefits and potential time and gas savings our bridge affords and take full advantage during future closings and other congestion-related delays.”

But motorists in Suffolk who regularly commute across the Elizabeth River are pessimistic about the effects of the closures, which are scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday through 5 a.m. Monday each weekend through spring 2014.

“This is going to be an unmitigated disaster,” stated Kristianna Clark in a comment to a Facebook post on the Suffolk News-Herald’s page. “I commute to Norfolk General from downtown Suffolk, and that already puts my departure time at 5:30 in the morning. Traffic’s already a nightmare; this is just insulting.”

Amanda Causin stated in another comment that she does not use the tunnel, but “everyone who normally takes the tunnel is being diverted to the high rise — my usual route.”

To some extent, drivers are used to construction-related delays in the tunnels, but some people expect the delays associated with this work to be even worse.

“I believe it will make travel a lot more difficult,” Kristan Jinkins commented in an interview in North Suffolk. “They’re always working on it.”
One bright spot amidst the long series of closures is this: Elizabeth River Crossings has agreed to keep all tunnel lanes open during event and holiday weekends, according to company officials.