Reality Check: Inspecting Wallace, Bankhead tunnels


After a deadly tunnel failure 11 years ago in Boston, federal changes regarding tunnel inspections are finally being implemented. Right now ALDOT is working to make sure it complies with those new standards. Local 15's Andrea Ramey investigates the state of our tunnels in tonight's Reality Check.

You've likely driven through the tunnels, but have you ever been below them?

"We're underneath the Wallace Tunnel, right now?" said Ramey.

"That's the road right there," said ALDOT System Center Manager David Johnson.

We recently toured both the 44 year old Wallace Tunnel, and the Bankhead Tunnel, which was completed in 1940.

From monitoring CO2 emissions,

"This is where our emissions sensors are," said Johnson. "We don't want to get a buildup of carbon monoxide."

and how the pumps are running,

"If the pumps are coming on a lot, we may have a leak," said Johnson.

to making sure the tiles in the tunnel are clean and reflective for sufficient lighting,

"If you did not clean it, there would be a lot of build up," said Johnson.

There's a tremendous amount of work that goes into maintaining the two tunnels that run under the Mobile River. Annual cost: $1.5 million.

"There are daily, weekly, and monthly inspections that we do. There's a lot of aggressive preventive maintenance that we do," said Johnson.

To better understand the condition of our tunnels, we requested inspection data from the state.

"Our overall condition grades for both tunnels are what's called a fair condition or a 5. That means there is some minor deterioration, section loss, spalling of concrete," said ALDOT Maintenance Engineer Jason Shaw.

In the Wallace Tunnel, water leakage has been noted.

"The tunnels do leak, not significantly, typically based on temperature fluctuations. As cold weather causes the tunnels to contract, some of the cracks open up slightly allowing seepage of water," said Shaw.

While some issues like a poor seal were noted with the Bankhead, the main question is its age. The Bankhead is 77 year old. Typical design standard for tunnels, ALDOT says, is 75 years.

"That said, most bridge structures and tunnel structures do outlast their life expectancy with a good maintenance program. We expect to keep them in service as long as week can," said Shaw.

But how many more years could that mean?

"Based on the condition of the tunnel now, I don't think you assign a time frame to that," said Shaw.

This year, ALDOT for the first time ever will submit its tunnel inspection reports to the Federal Highway Administration. It's part of a new rule the agency set in 2015 that created the first national tunnel inspection program. The agency was widely criticized for not having one after the Big Dig ceiling collapse in Boston in 2006. One person died. New inspection standards will apply to every state in hopes of preventing another fatal failure. For ALDOT, it says the changes only mean minor tweaks in how its data is reported.

"We did those inspections prior, but now we're having to report that info to the federal government," said Shaw.

Bottom line, ALDOT says, both tunnels are safe and will be for the foreseeable future. ALDOT has to submit inspection reports to the federal government August 1st.

To review the inspection records ALDOT provided us, click here: