Is toll money being used on inexperienced tunnel washers?

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — There are questions about how the money you pay in tolls is being used to clean the Downtown and Midtown tunnels.

10 On Your Side was told the new company contracted to clean the Midtown Tunnel is inexperienced and can’t do the job. Was that sour grapes from the more experienced company that used to clean the tunnel, or was it truth?

10 On Your Side went down to check out both tunnels when they were being cleaned Monday and Wednesday nights.

“He is a wannabe tunnel washer that is bidding on a statewide contract,” said the owner of Ken Barlow Cleaning Services.

Those are harsh words are from the experienced tunnel washer, Ken Barlow, who cleans several tunnels around the country and has for years. On Monday night, saw his crew moving quickly through the Downtown Tunnel with power washers.

Barlow is irked that newcomer Saleem Raja and his company, ETI Environmental, is taking away his business.

“When he submitted the bid, he didn’t have any customers. He is not qualified, and there is no one who can attest to his being qualified,” Barlow said.

Barlow protested VDOT awarding Raja with a contract for the HRBT and MMMBT when he had no letters of reference from past customers. VDOT agreed and reopened the bids.

Then Elizabeth River Crossings (ERC) hired Raja to clean the Midtown Tunnel this week. “I see that as maybe giving him a chance to prove himself, and maybe learn, and I don’t think it’s going to go well,” Barlow said.

Raja’s crew started 90 minutes late Wednesday night, and there may have been some spraying of water, but on Thursday there were no visible signs that any work had been done.

So, 10 On Your Side called Raja for an interview. He told us to go to his home, but then canceled. WAVY News went to his home anyways, but he refused to answer the door or his phone. And his phone would not take a message.

Earlier over the phone, 10 On Your Side asked Raja why the tunnel wasn’t cleaned. He said, “We didn’t clean the tunnel last night. We couldn’t get the soap to work. This was our first tunnel with the new equipment. This is the first time we’ve done it.” asked Raja if he thought it was fair to delay the traveling public with lane closures while he was experimenting with equipment while on the job. He answered, “Ummm, let me think about that for a moment.” After five seconds of silence, he said, “We will leave it with what I’ve said.”

10 On Your Side went to ERC, who hired Raja’s company. ERC would not do an on-camera interview, but spokeswoman Leila Rice sent this statement via email:

Mr. Raja’s services will be evaluated upon completion of the work assigned, and use of his services for future tunnel washing work will be determined after this evaluation.

Rice also said this “about last night’s tunnel washing at the Midtown Tunnel:”

  • ERC focuses on actively engaging and employing locally-owned businesses to work on the ERT Project. When we find local companies who can meet our needs, we provide them an opportunity.
  • Tunnel washing was not stopped at 11:30 p.m., however, the large piece of equipment likely left the tunnel in order to refill its water tank. It had been cleaning for approximately two hours prior and ran out of water.
  • Midtown Tunnel washing is not complete; they will be washing inside the Midtown again this evening.

Again, Thursday morning, when 10 On Your Side went through the tunnel, there was no evidence any cleaning had taken place.

Raja also said, “This was a night to dial it in, to perfect what we were doing with the brand new equipment, and getting the soap to feed at the minimal level to be the most environmentally friendly.”

Raja said he has $750,000 of new equipment. Then he acknowledged that a work contract shows it’s leased equipment.

Barlow maintains, “Raja hasn’t made any investment in equipment. He hasn’t made any investment in scrubbing equipment. He doesn’t have any experience.”

Spokswoman Paula Miller said VDOT published a notice of intent on Wednesday to award long-term statewide contracts for tunnel washing. For Hampton Roads, the contracts are for the HRBT, MMMBT and 564 Runway Tunnels. Ironically, Barlow and Raja each get a piece of the action.

VDOT said it intends to give the contract for tunnel pressure washing three times a year to Ken Barlow Cleaning Services. And for tunnel scrubbing once a year, the contract will be awarded to ETI Environmental, Inc.

Miller also reminded that this was a notice of intent, and that there is a 10-day waiting period before the contracts are actually awarded. That’s to see if anyone protests the potential contracts.

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