Tunnel Traffic Rolls

WHEELING — After 10 months of delays and debates, the eastbound tube of the Wheeling Tunnel is open to traffic — though motorists may notice that the renovation project is far from complete.

Dustin Neely, engineer with the West Virginia Division of Highways, said the tube opened at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

Officials with the WVDOH had planned to open the tube to accommodate holiday traffic, particularly crowds attending the Winter Festival of Lights at Oglebay Park and those who will be in downtown Wheeling for the annual Fantasy in Lights holiday parade, which is set for 6:30 p.m. today.

“I guess the main thing is that it is open and it is safe,” Neely said of the tunnel.

Neely said electrical work in the fan room above the tunnel will continue for about two more weeks, though he said the work would not be a hindrance to motorists.

The tube was closed on Jan. 17 and was scheduled to be completed by May 8. Less than a month after work started, problems arose concerning extra demolition required in removing old ceramic tiles.

More problems came when patching material intended as a base for the new tile would not stick to the tunnel’s concrete sub walls.

The job was put on hold while WVDOH brought in experts to determine what was causing the bonding problems.

Repeated testing of different materials continued for several weeks before officials could agree on which product and application technique were suitable for the job.

Excessive moisture and water created a recurring problem, and the presence of an abandoned coal mine over the tunnel was cited as part of the problem.

Robert Whipp, WVDOH district engineer , previously said, ‘‘We have not completed all renovation work or cleaning, but we have completed enough to safely open the tunnel until work can be completed.’’

Whipp said WVDOH’s decision to suspend the $5.7 million renovation project until next spring was largely because of the holiday season.

Much of the planned work for the interior of the tunnel remains incomplete. For example, there are ceramic tiles missing from sections of the walls, while several areas of blackened tile covered with overspray from the high pressure application of patching cement against bare tunnel walls are also visible. The presence of overspray diminishes tunnel lighting because bright yellow tiles are not available to enhance overall illumination.

Also, much of the planned interior painting has not been done and a 14,000-square-foot flat ceiling at the west end entrance remains untiled.

Last month, West Virginia Sen. Andy McKenzie, R-Ohio, submitted a letter to Paul A. Mattox Jr., the state transportation secretary, asking that the tunnel be opened until next spring.

McKenzie wrote, “While the $5.7 million project lags five months behind its May 8th deadline, I see the Wheeling economy losing its grip, and that slippage cannot continue throughout the holiday season. Not only have the large enterprises felt the economic impact of the calamitous project but also have small business proprietors.

“As such, I am respectfully requesting that all work on the tunnel be halted within the next two weeks and postponed until the spring of 2008.”

Staff Writer Fred Connors contributed to this report.