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Tunnel Removal Good Idea, But Not Feasible

January 6, 2008
WHEELING — Delegate Orphy Klempa hopes for a day when concerns about the Wheeling Tunnel will be no more.

Klempa, D-Ohio, believes eliminating the tunnel by cutting out the hillside — similar to Sideling Hill on Interstate 68 near Hagerstown, Md. — would be better than again trying to fix the 40-year-old portal.

This would eliminate the water problems encountered during last year’s eastbound tube renovation project, which, in turn, did not allow the tile to stick, Klempa said. Also, a cut through the hillside would add more traffic lanes to the existing roadway.

‘‘It’s an expensive proposition, but what isn’t these days?’’ he said.

The cost for renovating the tunnel’s eastbound tube has exceeded $3 million, with additional cost overruns yet to be determined. A new contractor also will have to be paid to come in and finish the renovation work sometime this year, as The Velotta Co. of Sharon Center, Ohio, was removed from the job before it was finished.

After that, the westbound tube will need renovated.

Klempa said if a tunnel removal plan gains support, 80 percent of its cost would be assumed by the federal government with 20 percent by the state government. Interstate highways receive federal funding, but remain under the jurisdiction of state highway networks.

Since a public housing neighborhood sits atop the tunnel, Klempa believes it would be less difficult now for the federal government to purchase the property needed for a new roadway.

‘‘What is there now would be a lot cheaper buyout than in years past,’’ he added. ‘‘It could be done. Anything is possible these days.’’

The HOPE VI housing atop the hill is only a few years old. It cost millions of taxpayer dollars to demolish the former Grandview Manor Apartments and construct the new Wheeling Heights housing units.

Randy Geese, executive director of the Wheeling Housing Authority, said he has not heard of any plans to remove the hill.

‘‘I am not aware of any official comments or proposals suggesting anything like this,’’ he said.

Geese said the Wheeling Housing Authority property over the tunnel consists of 46 rental units, 13 for-sale properties and a community building.

He added, ‘‘I have no idea how many of our properties would be involved if a plan to remove the hill was initiated.’

The tunnel issue is likely to be discussed when the Legislature convenes on Wednesday, according to Klempa.

‘‘There are rumblings about the tunnel, and about how it was handled,’’ he said. ‘‘It is something we will be looking at.’’

State Sen. Andy McKenzie, R-Ohio, says removing the tunnel may be a good idea — but it is not practical.

‘‘It would be a reasonable, long-term solution to the problem, but probably not a realistic financial solution. The state simply does not have the resources,” he said. “It is not an unreasonable thought, but I don’t think it will be reasonably considered by the Legislature.’’

McKenzie said he is not sure how much money it would take to remove the tunnel.

‘‘We could be talking tens of millions or maybe a hundred million dollars,’’ he said.

The Sideling Hill project cost $17.2 million when it was completed in 1968. According to information from the Maryland Department of Transportation, it also eliminated a tunnel known as Sideling Hill tunnel.

Brent Walker, a spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Transportation in Charleston, said removing the Wheeling Tunnel and cutting away the hill above it is an alternative to solving the tunnel problem — but the proposal has not become a topic of serious discussion.

‘‘We have talked about alternative tunnel remedies and that has been one of them,’’ Walker said. ‘‘However, it has not risen to the point of serious discussion.’’

He said the state is sensitive to the tunnel situation and the agency is interested in determining how to move forward with the best plan.

‘‘We take the Wheeling Tunnel very seriously,’’ Walker said. ‘‘We have to find a way to continue with it, whether it be to remove it or whatever. Our first thought is to work within the parameters of the existing tunnel.’’

Walker said state officials have discussed different concepts as alternative ways to renovate the tunnel aside from ceramic tiles.

One such idea involves the use of panels or liners inside the tunnel.

“Concepts like that are just that—conceptual,” Walker said. “They have been discussed but it has only been discussion.”

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