SUFFOLK - The Va. Department of Transportation said Friday it will not close the Hampton Road Bridge-Tunnel until after the Columbus Day holiday - October 8 - and the work will be done in a series of overnight closures that will take one to two more weekends to complete.
Officials said they weren't prepared to give dates yet because they continue to look at major events scheduled in and around the region.
The decision was made after last weekend's gridlock caused by the closure of the eastbound tunnel and the southbound lanes of the James River Bridge. That forced all drivers into the only open crossing from the Peninsula to Southside - the I-664 Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel.
"Delivering projects on time and on budget is never an excuse for making a bad decision," Charlie Kilpatrick, VDOT's deputy commissioner, said. "You have to know what your impact is to traffic and you have to plan accordingly. That’s one of the great lessons we’ve learned here."
Drivers were stuck for hours, many ran out of gas; many people missed or had to delay important events like weddings and funerals.
VDOT cancelled plans to close the spans this weekend and apologized for the problem, promising to come up with a way to keep traffic moving while getting the necessary work completed.
As for the James River Bridge, 4 weekend closures in each direction are needed and southbound lanes will again be closed on the weekend of Sept. 28 and again on the October 5 weekend. Crews will be removing and replacing the steel grid bridge deck to ensure the safety of the structure.
Work at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel involves maintenance operations, including repaving operations inside the tunnel and much of that work needs to be done before cold weather arrives. VDOT says it repaves the HRBT once every ten to twelve years to prevent pavement deterioration and keep the driving conditions as smooth as possible.
VDOT said tunnel volumes drop significantly overnight to less than 500 cars an hour, so fewer drivers would be impacted by a closure.
"VDOT has damaged its reputation with Hampton Roads. I'd love to build it back in one operation, but it's going to take time to show, weekend after weekend, day after day, that people will see 'wow, VDOT gets it,'" Kilpatrick said.
He said VDOT learned five major lessons:
-As a matter of agency policy, VDOT will not close two major harbor crossings at the same time for scheduled work
-VDOT will conduct a traffic analysis of major facility closures to estimate the anticipated back-ups and the delay time
-VDOT will better coordinate with localities to make sure other road work doesn’t get in the way of a major detour, such as the route to the MMMBT
-VDOT will improve coordination between project management and operations
-The Hampton Roads District will not schedule an extended harbor crossing closing for construction and maintenance work without consulting with the Chief Deputy Commissioner first.
When asked whether the person responsible for making the decision to close two spans at once was still employed, Kilpatrick said he wouldn't discuss personnel issues in public but that Dennis Heuer, the Hampton Roads District Administrator, was still in his position.
Kilpatrick also promised that drivers will get at least two-weeks notice before the HRBT work occurs through an outreach campaign so motorists are not caught by surprise.