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PORTSMOUTH-A nearly year-long construction project has closed the Downtown Tunnel westbound this weekend.

As part of a long-term plan with VDOT, the Elizabeth River Tunnels Project Team will shut down the lanes from Norfolk to Portsmouth lanes to make structural improvements to the 61-year old tube. Some of the work includes new ventilation systems and fire proofing.

Initial work will be to prepare for the fire-proofing on the ceiling to protect the structure of the tunnel, officials said Thursday.

The lanes will be closed each weekend until May 2014 from 8:00 p.m. Fridays until 5:00 a.m. Mondays.

'With the weekend closures, we do have a detour in place that will take people across the High Rise Bridge,' said Leila Rice, spokeswoman for ERT. 'There are also alternate routes that can be used including the Gilmerton Bridge, the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge and the Midtown Tunnel.'

The Jordan Bridge will not charge tolls this weekend. You can drive for free beginning at midnight Friday through midnight Sunday.

ERT estimates the closure will mean a 30-minute delay for drivers, but some frequent commuters think the delay will be longer.

'I think it's going to be longer and I think it's going to affect everyone,' said Terri Smith of Portsmouth. 'Even if you try to divert, use Midtown, use Jordan, use any of the other tunnels, you're still going to run into it.'

Charles Greenhood has owned and operated Brutti's in the Olde Towne section of Portsmouth since 1993. He is upset over the closing of the westbound lanes of the Downtown Tunnel. He believes VDOT could have used the eastbound lane for two-way traffic.

'Everyone is upset. They did not consult with any of the business owners on the west side of the tunnel,' Greenhood said.

The Olde Towne Business Association, who believes there will be a strong economic impact, met with officials from VDOT and the ERC but feel their questions were not answered.

'Where are the hard numbers that they have supposedly gotten from the businesses that would show that this is not going to be an impact and so far the proof has not been supplied,' said Tony Goodwin, president of the Olde Towne Business Association.

Beginning next Monday night, westbound will be reduced to one lane as part of the repairs. Similar to the weekend work, the single weekday lane closure will last each weekday until next spring.

Click here to read VDOT's report on traffic analysis of weekend traffic.

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