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Tunnel project pulls ahead

By Ron Brown, February 19, 2014

Liberty's vehicular tunnel, under construction.Liberty University literally broke new ground on several fronts last fall when it embarked on the construction of a four-lane vehicular tunnel under existing railroad tracks.

Ultimately, the tunnel will give Liberty students, faculty, and staff more effective access to Wards Road, one of the busiest highways in the Lynchburg area. It will empty at the Wards Road/Harvard Street intersection and greatly improve the traffic flow onto and off of Lynchburg’s primary retail corridor.

“You won’t have cars making U-turns on a busy highway,” President Jerry Falwell, Jr. said. “I think the tunnel will become the major access to campus.”

Currently, vehicles enter the campus at a nearby at-grade crossing by the Sonic restaurant on Wards Road. In the past, trains have often stopped on the tracks making entering and exiting the campus problematic. The railroad and the university have also long been concerned about safety at the crossing, which will be closed once the vehicular tunnels are operational.

“If it hadn’t been for that at-grade crossing, I doubt that the railroad would allow us to do this,” Falwell said.

Liberty engaged Southland Contracting Inc., out of Fort Worth, Texas, to do the tunnel work, which involves the pulling of two large concrete boxes underneath the tracks about 7 inches at a time while small loaders go inside to dig out dirt. The engineers first performed core drillings underneath the tracks prior to excavation so they had some idea of what they would encounter.

The digging process involves boxes equipped with cutting edges that dig into the soil while being pulled by a hydraulic system using 162 massive steel cables. Each box is 26 feet high, 32 feet wide, and 130 feet long, and the challenge for excavators is to make sure the 4.2 million-pound boxes move in a way that does not destabilize the soil underneath the railroad tracks. A shift in soil stability could cause the tracks to move, potentially leading to a major train derailment.

The Liberty project marks the first time that Norfolk Southern Railroad has allowed massive concrete boxes to be pulled underneath existing railroad tracks, with negotiations for the project beginning back in 2006.

“It is just not something that the railroad allows every day,” said Falwell, who flipped a switch on Nov. 11 to start the digging process. This is the first time this tunnel construction method has been used in North America, though it has previously been used in Europe.

Liberty is currently undergoing a $500 million makeover, which will significantly modernize its existing facilities and add several new ones. The new tunnel project is being completed at the same time that Liberty is constructing both a new road that will lead from the tunnels to main campus and a 1,400-space parking garage.

“Most of the traffic will come into the tunnel, go directly into the parking garage, and never drive around campus like it does now,” Falwell said. “It will be a quieter campus, a more peaceful place for students to study, less traffic, less noise — that’s another big benefit.”

The tunnel will give the campus an impressive new entrance that will allow students, faculty, and visitors improved access to the campus and its academic buildings, residence halls, and athletics venues.

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