NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) - As you were sitting in miles of traffic at the Monitor Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel a few weeks ago, you may have wondered what high ranking VDOT officials thought of the plan to close two bridges at the same time.
Internal emails obtained by WAVY.com through a Freedom of Information request show VDOT's Hampton Roads District Manager Dennis Heuer did not heed warnings, even from VDOT employees working on the project.
More than one VDOT employee warned not to close both bridges at the same time, according to an email from Chief of Systems Operations Connie Sorrell, who writes, "This was clearly not acceptable planning." But in both cases, the employees were told Heuer had already decided to move forward with the closures, Sorrell writes.
The 10- mile back up at the MMMBT earlier this month was caused by two scheduled closures of the eastbound lanes of the HRBT and the southbound lanes of the James River Bridge for maintenance work.
Even before the gridlock, VDOT received complaints from drivers. And it's clear, not all of them were taken seriously.
That Friday, a local resident called to complain about the upcoming closures. The VDOT employee who took the call asked Construction Project Manager Thomas Druhot to "Please call her back." Druhot responded, "Really?" A VDOT spokesperson replied, "Yes its out of control."
"We're taking a beating," wrote another VDOT employee.
Heuer, the man who gave the go ahead to close both bridges, did not acknowledge the inconvenience to motorists in his emails Saturday. At 3 p.m., he wrote "Great signs at Magruder for paving," and after an update promised the work would be done early, he wrote "Get a good job. Don't rush basic to just open earlier. Short term gain in traffic will be offset with 10 years of rough pavement."
Instead of addressing citizens' complaints on the VDOT Facebook page, many were simply deleted. In one email, spokesperson Lauren Hansen urged another employee to "selectively delete FB rants from the public," saying social media "entices a mob mentality."
In a follow up conversation Friday, Hansen told WAVY.com that phone conversations preceded the email chain about Facebook comments. Hansen claims that during those phone conversations, employees specified they were talking about deleting only the comments that were considered threatening or vulgar.
Sunday VDOT released a statement that was less than apologetic. Chief Deputy Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick agreed. "I don't think this release was helpful," he wrote. In response to the same release, Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton asked, "Why did this happen this way?"
In a scathing email, Sorrell says there was no plan in place for possible emergencies at the Monitor Merrimac, no consideration for large events like the air show, and a complete breakdown in communication. Sorrell said traffic problems were not reported to 511 to alert the public in a timely manner.
It wasn't until 10 On Your Side got the governor's office involved Monday that the emails had a different tone. The governor's spokesman emailed Connaughton, saying, "This has all the makings of a prairie fire, if not jumped on quickly." To VDOT he wrote, "WAVY is expecting your call for comment."
Last week, VDOT announced it will never again close two bridges at the same time.
VDOT will not resume paving the eastbound lanes of the HRBT until after Columbus Day. When that happens, work will take place at night and the tunnel will be open during the day. The James River Bridge will also be open at that time.
State officials say construction on a new Bonner Bridge has been delayed for years because of a legal battle with an environmental group.
Michelle Price with Newport News Public Schools told WAVY.com at least three city school buses ran substantially late Wednesday afternoon, delivering children home several hours after dismissal.
Plans to enhance a popular park in Smithfield are on hold. Some people say City Council is trying to commercialize a natural and historic treasure, and leave them out of the loop.