Fixing a couple of sinkholes and trying to strengthen the area around a planned parking garage so additional degradation doesn’t occur is costing Loudoun County taxpayers about $3 million. Some wonder if the county is tossing away money.
“I’m really afraid that we are getting ourselves to an old-fashioned boondoggle, as far as throwing our money down a hole – rather literally and figuratively,” said Loudoun County Supervisor Ron Meyer.
Meyer was one of two members to vote on Tuesday against adding about $3 million to the contract for the four-level parking garage for a new courthouse building in downtown Leesburg. The issue passed, but even those approving the increased sum expressed reservations.
After hearing from staff members that the possibility existed that more sinkholes could occur in Leesburg with its limestone-heavy underground geology, Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall said the account was “one of the more unsettling staff reports I’ve heard in a long time.” She added that there was not a good alternative, that it would cost a lot more to start over at a different site.
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau called it a “lousy situation” but added that the additional work was “the only move for us.” Less thorough fixes would be “penny wise and pound foolish,” he said.
Meyer appealed to search for less costly options, including making the garage only three levels. Supervisor Kristen Umstattd, who also voted against the increased allotment, also supported reviewing a three-level structure.
Joe Kroboth, the county’s director of transportation and capital infrastructure, said that more than half of the structure had already been fabricated as a four-level garage. The columns and other parts would have to be rebuilt as a smaller project, cutting into any savings, he said.
Late last year, the board awarded a $12.7 million contract to a team led by Winchester-based Howard Shockey & Sons to build the first part of the courthouse complex expansion, which ultimately plans a new 92,000-square-foot District Court building. The 717-space garage is being built just east of the Pennington parking lot. Shockey last year completed a similar-sized, four-level parking garage at One Loudoun development in Ashburn.
In June, a large sinkhole developed along the western portion of the project as workers drilled into the ground and installed the micropile foundation system, which employs high-strength steel casing deep underground. Two months later, a second sinkhole appeared within the 60-foot diameter first one, giving officials a larger sinking feeling.
“Sinkholes are unpredictable,” a consultant told the board.
Consultants recommended making additional ground improvements near the sinkhole, such as cap grouting, to strengthen the area and minimize the possibility of future sinkholes developing. That additional work accounted for the bulk of the cost with actual sinkhole remediation estimated at some $500,000.
Umstattd warned residents in the area on her Facebook page that one sinkhole was more than 80 feet deep. One resident replied that sidewalks and driveways on Marshall Drive “are sinking.”
The sinkholes are expected to delay the garage’s completion by about five months until November 2018. The project has already seen more than $300,000 in overruns for work such as more rock excavation.
More sinkholes have been reported nationally in recent years, with many blamed on aging infrastructure or limestone foundations that breed caverns formed by underground water dissolving the rock. In a five-month period in late 2016 and early 2017, almost 40 “significant” sinkholes were found in cities nationwide, including Sioux City, Iowa, Seattle and Hoboken, N.J., according to the Associated Press. A 68-year-old woman died after her car fell into a 12-foot hole in a San Antonio road last December.
Sinkholes almost swallowed a new playground in North Little Rock, Ark., earlier this year. Others have eaten up homes, including one in Land O’Lakes, Fla., that grew to about 260 feet wide. And roads around a parking lot in Palmyra, Pa., closed in late August after some large sinkholes formed, apparently not for the first time. Among the businesses in that shopping center was the Sinkhole Saloon & Grille.