November 11, 2013 : By Drew Menard
Construction of Liberty University’s new vehicular tunnel made headway on Monday as the digging phase commenced. President Jerry Falwell, Jr. was on site to push the button that started the hydraulic pumps, making history in the process.
The four-lane tunnel, scheduled to open by the end of January 2014, is being built under railroad tracks on the west side of campus and will empty out at the Wards Road/Harvard Street intersection. It will have two openings (two lanes entering and two lanes exiting), each with a sidewalk.
The project is an engineering feat — the first time this particular digging method is being used in North America. It involves pulling two jacked concrete boxes, each standing 26 feet tall and weighing 4.2 million pounds, through the tunnel from the east side with six motors and more than 160 cables. The tunnel area is more than 100 feet long and crews estimate the pumps will move the boxes about 1 foot an hour. One opening is being dug at a time. The non-stop process is expected to take up to 10 days in all.
“It’s really rare that something that’s never happened before in North America is happening in Lynchburg, Va.,” Falwell said. “It’s really exciting.”
It also marked the first time the Norfolk Southern Railway has allowed concrete boxes that large to be pulled under a live, active, main rail.
Charles Spence, Liberty’s director of Planning & Construction, said the project has been six years in the making, involving countless hours in planning with engineers and railway officials.
“We were able to get the right people in the right places and earn the trust of the railroad to do this project,” he said.
Once open, the tunnel will replace the at-grade crossing near Sonic, creating a much safer route for all university guests.
It will also greatly improve traffic flow along one of the busiest roads in the city. People driving to campus will no longer have to make U-turns on opposite ends nor wait several minutes for a train to cross.
Liberty is fully funding the tunnel project and is also sharing in the costs of having the intersection reworked. That part of the project is expected to start by the end of the week.
Liberty is already constructing the new road that will lead through the tunnels to main campus.
“It will change the traffic flow on campus completely; this will become the main campus road,” Falwell said.
A 1,400-space parking garage is also under construction nearby.
“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 is a further sign of growth as Liberty undertakes an ambitious $500 million campus rebuilding that includes plans for 16,000 residential students by 2020.
“Without this tunnel, I don’t think we could grow much bigger than we are now,” Falwell said.