PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) - A series of weekend closures at the Downtown Tunnel is supposed to continue through May of next year, but Portsmouth business owners are considering a court-ordered injunction to stop the closures.
The tunnel is the primary route from Norfolk to Portsmouth, particularly Downtown Portsmouth. And after six weeks of weekend closures, some local businesses are taking a noticeable hit in foot traffic and revenue.
Some businesses say they've seen no change since the closures began because they don't depend on customers from other cities. Others saw no effect because they are closed on the weekends. But an Economic Development Office Survey of 93 local businesses shows revenues are down as much as 30 percent.
"We support it. It is not pie in the sky," said Portsmouth Mayor Kenny Wright.
Wright supports a court-ordered injunction to stop the westbound closures every weekend, and he might use taxpayer money to fund legal fees to help it happen.
"We will provide support because this is a major concern for us ... the details must be worked out ... it is too early to know exactly what will happen," he said.
The injunction is the brainchild of Portsmouth businessman Charles Greenhood.
"[I'm fighting] against the villains who are behind this," Greenhood said. "I'm sorry, but they are doing it on purpose, and it is a villainous act."
Greenhood says the Virginia Department of Transportation and its private partner Elizabeth River Crossings are the villains in this situation. He says it makes sense to have bi-directional traffic in one tube while the other is closed for workers -- but that is not VDOT's plan. The entire westbound tube is closing from Friday evenings until Monday mornings and drivers must use inconvenient alternate routes. That's the plan for months, and then the project will repeat the process in the eastbound tube.
ERC's Leila Rice disagrees.
"It is a safety issue to have bi-directional traffic in the eastbound lane ... it eliminates a staging area for first responders, and wrecker services. If someone breaks down, it is going to shut down traffic in both directions for a significant amount of time."
Rice also gave the following reasons:
- The truck over-height detection system does not support bi-directional travel through the eastbound tunnel. Just one over height truck entering the tunnel could potentially stop traffic in both directions (since they would be using the same tube) for a significant amount of time.
- Bi-directional traffic in the EB tunnel would make it difficult for crews to efficiently and effectively respond to incidents, and it would also significantly reduce the staging area for first responders and wreckers which would negatively impact the amount of time needed to respond to incidents in the tunnel.
- Constantly switching traffic patterns ( 5 days/week one way and 2 days/week bi-directional) could create driver confusion and increase risk of traffic accidents, particularly when slowing traffic down from highway speeds on I-264 to merge onto the opposite side of the road.
- With the way the tunnels are configured, motorists traveling westbound through a bi-directional tunnel would not be able to access the Effingham exit and would thus not have direct access to Downtown Portsmouth.
"That is a bunch of baloney," Greenhood responded. "I am not buying that for one second. There is no safety issue."
Rice also told WAVY.com bi-directional traffic would cause further congestion and lengthy delays.
"Therefore, trips across the river would take additional time (likely up to an hour during peak times) in BOTH directions," Rice said. "This would discourage motorists even further."
Attorney Steve Heretick says a temporary restraining order and then a preliminary injunction could be a real possibility.
"The court would do this quickly ... the court has to look at what the effect is on the people seeking the relief. What is the impact of the people defending, and what impact will it have on the public interest? ... the impact on the public interest will drive the decision," Heretick said.
"VDOT and ERC obviously have this idea that they can do whatever the hell they want without anyone saying anything or doing anything about it," Greenhood said. "Rice says she is absolutely sure there will be no bi-directional traffic under any circumstances ... it will stay as it is."
WAVY.com has learned will be a meeting next week that may include the City Attorney, City Manager, some Council members, and business leaders on the issue. Count on WAVY.com and WAVY News 10 to keep you updated.
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