Terra incognita: Lessons from Harrisonburg’s Big Dig

Downtown Harrisonburg’s subterranean landscape includes concealed coal chutes, limestone pinnacles, shallow gas mains, phone duct banks and other obstacles to progress – and no one knows what’s where until they start digging. Illustration by Randi B. Hagi.

Story and photo by Bruce Stambaugh, Contributor

When construction shut down two blocks of East Market St. in May, city officials planned to be done with the sidewalk and road renovations by late August or early September. Now, three months after that initial deadline, project manager Aaron Rhoney says the end of what’s been a frustrating process for the city, affected business owners and downtown motorists is finally in sight.

Rhoney, the city’s acting assistant director of public works, said a series of unfortunate surprises caused considerable delay to the project, ranging from extensive rock just below the old asphalt to an unexpectedly shallow gas main laid atop an old sewer line. Throw in some abandoned coal chutes and an improperly installed telecommunications duct bank and there was plenty to thwart early plans.

“Once these issues were discovered, we had to resort to hand-digging, which added both cost and time,” Rhoney said.

The biggest surprise of the surprise-laden Big Dig was an alert backhoe operator’s near miss with a potential explosion.

“The worker stopped digging in the street when he saw something that didn’t look right,” Rhoney said.

It turned out to be a three-inch gas main run inside of some old terracotta pipe.

“Had he not stopped digging,” Rhoney continued, “I hate to think what would have happened … That forced us to rethink and reevaluate how we approached the project to avoid any other potentially dangerous surprises.”

Barricades, and construction netting separate the construction from a sidewalk.

Back in May, the original goal was to lower water lines, rehab sewer lines, repave the trench and install decorative sidewalks. Then, they found lots of rock. There were pinnacles of it poking up close to the road surface, sometimes only inches below, where they acted as pressure points.

“That explains why the road deteriorated so quickly,” Rhoney said. “When vehicles drove over those spots, they would crack the pavement.”

Result: a change order asking the contractor to mill the pinnacles down at least a foot to create a road base up to modern snuff.

Diplomacy efforts

According to Mike Parks, director of communications for Harrisonburg, the city tried to keep businesses informed as the work drug on and plans were altered.

“We worked with Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance (HDR) and every business owner to keep them apprised of every step of the process of the project,” he said.

HDR Executive Director Andrea Dono also played a crucial role in keeping city businesses and the city connected during the construction.

“We tried to make sure the businesses were informed about what was happening with all the delays,” she said. “It was just one thing after the other with the aging infrastructure, and Aaron [Rhoney] did an excellent job of keeping us updated.”

Dono said HDR also worked to notify the public through frequent social media posts and its twice-monthly e-newsletter. HDR also increased its marketing efforts to make people aware that businesses along East Market Street were open during the construction.

“We even put up brightly colored laminated signs along the sidewalks to let potential patrons know they could get to the stores,” Dono said.

Rhoney said that Dono sometimes contacted him with business owners’ concerns.

“Mike [Parks] issued press releases, and we met with business owners one-on-one,” he said. “Most people were frustrated about the unknowns, too.”

Although the road was closed for safety reasons, Rhoney said the city made sure to preserve pedestrian access to affected businesses. The biggest concern he heard from business and property owners along East Market Street involved parking. A total of nine spots fell victim to the street closure, according to Parks. These will returned when the road reopens.

Still, both men acknowledge a certain frustration level all around, especially due to the unforeseen delays.

Impact on businesses

Despite the city’s efforts to mitigate the effects of construction, Dono acknowledged that businesses have felt the effects of reduced customer numbers.

“I think people felt intimidated by all the noise and heavy, loud equipment,” Dono shared. “Even though the sidewalks were open, they didn’t want to venture down them.”

One business owner, who did not want to be identified, said her business has been hurt financially by the construction. The road closure eliminated parking near her shop, and even though the sidewalk remained open, people thought it was closed.

“The city and workers did everything they could to keep me informed,” the owner said. “But, the delays really cut into my business.”

Grant Serrels waits on customers at the coffee shop he manages at the corner of Main and East Market streets.

Just Love Coffee and Tea, located on the corner of North Main and East Market streets, opened its doors about the time the construction was supposed to end in August. Manager Grant Serrels said the roadwork put a dent in the fledgling business’s traffic, and that the construction delays had a noticeable, negative impact.

“Our numbers are a lot less than we expected,” said Serrels, a May graduate of JMU. “In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised.”

Serrels expected much of his business to come from curbside parking and walkups. But with the closure of the curb lane on North Main Street, and East Market Street closed altogether, that didn’t happen.

According to Dono, there is no funding available to affected businesses to offset revenue losses caused by construction.

An underground Wild West

The initial idea was simple enough. City water lines beneath East Market Street were too shallow and beginning to deteriorate.

“We couldn’t continue to repave every two to three years without public utilities making some major adjustments,” Rhoney said. “Since the street was dug up, they made some improvements to both water and sewer lines.”

In attempting to place those water and sewer lines deeper, however, work crews uncovered surprises and snafus. One were old coal chutes that once led from the street into basements, which at some point had simply been covered up.

“They were basically only bridged by sidewalk sections, which could have been another dangerous situation,” Rhoney said. “We had to fill in all of those spaces after building support walls in front of the basement walls.”

Then, after the discovery of the shallow gas main, gas company workers hit a water main. Separately, there were numerous terracotta sewer lines that needed replacement with PVC. And during the careful hand-digging that was required around the gas main, a concrete ditch filled with telephone lines was discovered – a relic, Rhoney said, of an earlier time when standards and oversight weren’t quite what they’ve become. (Verizon came and moved the lines to a better spot.)

“We now have a construction management team, engineers, and inspectors, and we work with every department to facilitate their projects and public work projects,” he said.

Now, he added, utilities are mapped and added to the city’s GIS data – hopefully sparing future work crews, business owners and downtown motorists the hassle and headache caused by the unknowns beneath East Market Street.

“We do think about the potential risks of delaying traffic and putting an undue impact on business owners,” he said, “before initiating projects.”

“Hopefully, this means that we won’t have to go back down there for a long time,” Parks added.

Project Manager Aaron Rhoney and Harrisonburg Director of Communications Mike Parks review a schematic of the East Market Street construction project.

Delayed Part I delays Part II

The many twists to the now-concluding work mean the city is postponing utility work just down the street at the intersection of East Market and Mason streets, Rhoney said.

“We won’t be able to complete everything that we had planned,” he explained. “The manholes and sewer line tie-ins at that intersection will be done next year.”

“We’ll do a little more homework on that project because of what we learned on this one,” Rhoney said. “It doesn’t mean that we won’t have some unknowns.”

Rhoney added that the city doesn’t know exactly how far over budget the current project went because it isn’t completed yet. One factor in the city’s favor there is that the utility companies paid to move the gas and phone lines.

“Despite the delays and frustrations,” Parks said, “this has been a unique feat of engineering, thinking on our feet, and a team effort by public works, utilities, and the contractors.”

Construction equipment at the intersection of Main and East Market streets. The road is scheduled to re-open by mid-December.

Both Rhoney and Dono said the improvements will have lasting value.

“We will have vital utilities in place that will last a long time,” Dono said. “This will ensure successful downtown businesses for a long time.”

“I’m glad we are nearing the end of this important project,” Dono said. “Aaron [Rhoney] is making good choices and trying his best despite all of the surprises.”

In addition to underground utility improvements, Dono said the new street lamps and sidewalk will make downtown more attractive.

Fortunately, the end of the project is finally in sight. The base coat of paving went down before Thanksgiving. Rhoney anticipates the surface coat of asphalt will be done in early December, with the road open by mid-December.

“There will still be ongoing sidewalk construction that I hope will be completed by the end of December weather permitting,” Rhoney said. The sidewalks will be identical to the new ones on Main Street.

Partners Excavating of Harrisonburg served as the general contractor for the project.

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