Hampton Roads Bridges and Tunnels

looking towards Norfolk across the Berkley Bridge, from eastern portal of Downtown Tunnel
looking towards Norfolk across the Berkley Bridge, from eastern portal of Downtown Tunnel
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Downtown Tunnel and the Berkley Bridge east of the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River

The first underwater tunnel constructed for vehicles in Virginia was the Downtown Tunnel underneath the Elizabeth River, connecting the cities of Portsmouth and Norfolk. A two-lane tunnel opened in 1952, and is now used for westbound traffic. Another two-lane parallel tunnel, now housing the eastbound lanes, was completed in 1987.

the oldest underwater tunnel in Virginia is the westbound half of the Downton Tunnel, built beneath the Elizabeth River in 1952
the oldest underwater tunnel in Virginia is the westbound half of the Downton Tunnel, built beneath the Elizabeth River in 1952
Source: National Archives, Tunnel under the Elizabeth River, between Berkley and Norfolk, Virginia

building the second tube of the Downtown Tunnel, now used for eastbound traffic, in 1983
building the second tube of the Downtown Tunnel, now used for eastbound traffic, in 1983
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), RTS_0866a (by John Beilhart,)

Downtown Tunnel, underneath the Elizabeth River
Downtown Tunnel, underneath the Elizabeth River
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), RTS_0866a (by Tom Saunders)

East-bound drivers going from Portsmouth to Norfolk first go underneath the South Branch of the Elizabeth River in the Downtown Tunnel, then use the Berkley Bridge to coss the East Branch of the Elizabeth River.

Vehicles on I-264 going from Portsmouth to downtown Norfolk travel first underneath the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River via the Downtown Tunnel, then take the Berkley Bridge across the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River. Berkley Bridge is a drawbridge. Without a tunnel that allows ship passage at all times, traffic must stop when the Berkley Bridge is opened up to four times each day on Monday-Friday.1

the first highway tunnel to Norfolk linked it to Portsmouth, and passed underneath the Elizabeth River
the first highway tunnel to Norfolk linked it to Portsmouth, and passed underneath the Elizabeth River
Source: Boston Public Library, Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection, Portsmouth entrance to Norfolk - Portsmouth, Virginia Tunnel

The first two lanes of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel opened in 1957. It carries I-64 between the cities of Hampton and Virginia Beach. It was doubled to a four-lane facility in 1976. In 2016, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved expanding the tunnel. Twin two-lane tunnels will be bored through the sediments west of the existing eastbound tunnel. The additional four lanes will carry all eastbound traffic headed to Norfolk, while the four lanes of the existing two tunnels will carry all westbound traff headed to Hampton.2

Between 1957-76, drivers using the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel paid a toll. The revenue was used to pay off the 20-year bonds that had financed initial construction.

the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, looking towards Norfolk and Willoughby Spit
the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, looking towards Norfolk and Willoughby Spit
Source: Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel Expansion Project, DBE/SWaM Opportunity Event (September 11, 2019)

The new two lanes were funded primarily by the Federal government, as part of I-64 construction. When they opened, the bonds were being paid off. The state chose to eliminate tolls on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and simultaneously on the James River Bridge upstream, and on the Coleman Bridge over the York River.

The number of vehicles using the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel quickly increased by 30% more than the historical trend. A Virginia Highway & Transportation Research Council report noted a year later:3

... the residents of Tidewater Virginia have been paying some type of fee for the crossing of the Hampton Roads channel and its contributory rivers since the 1600's. As a result, the tolls have acted to prevent the Hampton Roads region from achieving its full economic and social potential.

when tolls on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel were eliminated in 1976, Average Daily Traffic (ADT) volumes increased far beyond the historical trendline
when tolls on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel were eliminated in 1976, Average Daily Traffic (ADT) volumes increased far beyond the historical trendline
Source: Virginia Highway & Transportation Research Council, Impact Of Removal Of Tolls On Travel In Tidewater Virginia, Volume I- Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (Figure 2)

The first two lanes of the Midtown Tunnel opened in 1962. Capacity on Route 58 was doubled in 2016 when a second tunnel was completed, along with extension of the MLK Freeway in Portsmouth from London Boulevard to Interstate 264 and interchange improvements in Norfolk at Brambleton Avenue/Hampton Boulevard.

eastern portal of original Midtown Tunnel, looking west from Norfolk towards Portsmouth Marine Terminal
eastern portal of original Midtown Tunnel, looking west from Norfolk towards Portsmouth Marine Terminal
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Midtown Tunnel from the Norfolk side (2007)

until 2016, Midtown Tunnel traffic squeezed into just one lane in each direction
until 2016, Midtown Tunnel traffic squeezed into just one lane in each direction
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Midtown Tunnel, Portsmouth side (2007)

Virginia partnerd with Elizabeth River Crossings, a private company, to build a parallel Midtown Tunnel and expand/maintain nearby roads
Virginia partnerd with Elizabeth River Crossings, a private company, to build a parallel Midtown Tunnel and expand/maintain nearby roads
Source: Elizabeth River Crossings, Elizabeth River Tunnels

To create the new tunnel, 11 concrete tubes were built at at Sparrows Point, Maryland. Temporary bulkheads were installed on each side, then the tubes were floated to the Elizabeth River site.

the Elizabeth River tunnel tubes were manufactured at Sparrows Point, then towed to Hampton Roads
the Elizabeth River tunnel tubes were manufactured at Sparrows Point, then towed to Hampton Roads
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Elizabeth River Tunnels Project (by Tom Saunders)

After placement over the trench excavated in the river bottom, water ballast tanks in each segment were flooded enough to sink the segment into place. Each of the 11 segments was carefully aligned in the trench so they could be sealed into a continuous tube. The ballast tanks were pumped dry, bulkheads were removed, and the tunnel finished.


Source: Elizabeth River Tunnels

The old tunnel is used to carry eastbound traffic from Portsmouth to Norfolk, and the new tunnel was dedicated to westbound traffic. The contractor responsible for the facilty, Elizabeth River Crossings, says:4

The original U.S. 58 Midtown Tunnel is the most heavily traveled two-lane road east of the Mississippi.

the oldest two-lane tube of the Downtown Tunnel, built in 1952, is 10 years older than the oldest two-lane tube of the Midtown Tunnel across the Elizabeth River
the oldest two-lane tube of the Downtown Tunnel, built in 1952, is 10 years older than the oldest two-lane tube of the Midtown Tunnel across the Elizabeth River
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Under Gov. Bob McDonnell, the Virginia Department of Transportation used a public-private partnership to obtain private sector funding for expanding the Downtown and Midtown tunnels. The state signed a 58-year contract with Elizabeth River Crossings, a multinational conglomerate formed by Macquarie, an Australian investment banking group, and the Swedish construction firm Skanska.

The contract guaranteed an average annual profit of 13.5 percent, with annual increases up to 3.5%. The next governor, Terry McAuliffe, attacked the contract but could not undo it.

When the local media revealed that Elizabeth River Crossings was adding late fees to unpaid tolls and some commuters owed as much as $14,000, public hostility to the toll company increased. It hired a new Chief Executive Officer whoaltered how debts were collected and negotiated settlements. The complaints disappeared from news coverage, and the news stories about the 2019 toll increase generated little controversy.

In 2020, the two companies which owned Elizabeth River Crossings sold it to a Spanish firm called Abertis for $2 billion. The new owner already operated 5,000 miles of toll roads in 16 countries, but lacked any in the United States.5

entrance to the Downtown Tunnel, on the Portsmouth side
entrance to the Downtown Tunnel, on the Portsmouth side
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (techically, the "Lucius J. Kellam, Jr. Bridge-Tunnel" since 1987) is operated by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commission, an agency created by the General Assembly in 1959. The 11-member commission is responsible for planning, funding, constructing, and operating the bridge-tunnel that has carried US 13 between Northampton County and the City of Virginia Beach since 1964.

It eliminated the need for cars and trucks to use ferries to get back and forth from the southern tip of the Eastern Shore. Railroad cars are still transported across the Chesapeake Bay on a specialized ferry.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commission, not the Virginia Department of Transportation, sets tolls, sells bonds, and selects contractors for construction projects. The commissioners are appointed by the governor. The commission's independence reflects the concerns in the 1950's that travelers would not pay enough toll revenue to cover all costs, and the desire of the General Assembly to insulate the state from the financial risk.

The Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel carries I-664 across/under the mouth of the James River. It has connected the cities of Newport News and Suffolk since 1992, and like the James River Bridge offers an alternative route to the often-congested Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel was built as a four-lane structure and has never been expanded, nor has it ever charged a toll.6

the tunnel component of the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel is below the James River shipping channel, close to Newport News
the tunnel component of the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel is below the James River shipping channel, close to Newport News
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel

The James River Bridge has carried Route 17 between Newport News and Isle of Wight County since 1928. A bridge, without a tunnel, was acceptable at that location because it is upstream of the Newport News shipbuilding site and the Norfolk facilities used by the US Navy.

Private entrepreneurs constructed the initial bridge, and tolls were collected between 1928-1975 to repay the initial construction and later maintenance costs. The Commonwealth of Virginia assumed responsibility for the structure during World War II.

looking upstream at the James River Bridge, from Newport News towards Isle of Wight County
looking upstream at the James River Bridge, from Newport News towards Isle of Wight County
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, James River Bridge

It includes a vertical lift span to allow ships up to 145 feet high to get upstream to Richmond and back to the Chesapeake Bay. Traffic must wait for about 15 minutes to raise and lower the lift. In Virginia, only the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is longer.

The two-lane 1928 structure was replaced with a four-lane bridge in 1982. A section of the original bridge was left on the Newport News side to serve as a fishing pier.7

the James River Bridge can lift a section of the roadway vertically up to 145 feet high
the James River Bridge can lift a section of the roadway vertically up to 145 feet high
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, The James River Bridge

All the railroad bridges across the Elizabeth River channels are drawbridges. Lifts are left in the "up" position except when a train is nearing the crossing. Highway bridges have constant traffic, so the rawbridges remain "down" except when a boat too high to pass underneath is moving through the channnel. To smooth out traffic, some bridges schedule lifts at particular times and require boaters to use those moments to pass through.

Tunnels eliminate the need for interrupting traffic flow for a boat's passage, providing a 24-7 option for driving underneath a waterway. Tunnels also eliminate the operational costs of a drawbridge operator and regular maintenance of metal parts that get sprayed with saltwater on windy days, but the cost of a tunnel is far greater than the cost of a drawbridge.

The tunnels of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel allow ships drawing 55' of water to cross, offering the greatest depth for a navigable channel. The Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel tubes provide for a 50' deep navigational channel. The Monitor Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel provides for a 47' deep channel. The Westbound Midtown Tunnel, built in 2016, is deep enough for a 47' channel. The Easttbound Midtown Tunnel, built in 1962, is only deep enough for ships that draw 35' of water. The two Downtown Tunnel tubes, further south on the Elizabeth River, also provide just a 35' deep channel and constrain the size of ships that could reach Norfolk Naval Shipyard.8

the older (1962) section of the Downtown Tunnel permits just a 35' deep navigational channel, while the younger (2016) section would allow dredging a 47' deep channel
the older (1962) section of the Downtown Tunnel permits just a 35' deep navigational channel, while the younger (2016) section would allow dredging a 47' deep channel
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Replacing drawbridges with taller spans is a solution to minimizing traffic delays on both land and water. The Gilmerton Bridge was replaced with another drawbridge, but with a 35' high span which minimized the need for openings. Much of the traffic on the South Branch of the Elizabeth River going underneath the structure consisted of small boats following the Intracostal Waterway using the Dismal Swamp Canal or the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal. Larger barges stop at industrial sites on the shorelines south of the bridge.

The bascule bridge, built during the Great Depression, was replaced in 2013 with a vertical lift design. To enable construction of the lift towers straddling the existing bridge, vehicle traffic was stopped each night for months.9

the old bascule Gimerton Bridge, with construction of the higher vertical lift bridge underway in 2011
the old bascule Gimerton Bridge, with construction of the higher vertical lift bridge underway in 2011
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Gilmerton Bridge 2011

the modern Gimerton Bridge, with vertical lift structure
the modern Gimerton Bridge, with vertical lift structure
Source: Kevin Johns, Design and Construction of the Gilmerton Vertical Lift Bridge

Blue Ridge Tunnel

Bridges in Virginia

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel

Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel

Hampton Roads Shipping Channels and Port Competition

Marking and Dredging Navigation Channels in Virginia

Railroads of Virginia

The Silver Line Tunnel at Tysons

Transportation Tunnels in Virginia

Berkley Bridge is a double-leaf bascule bridge across the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River
Berkley Bridge is a double-leaf bascule bridge across the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, The Berkley Bridge

Links

References

1. "Hampton Roads Tunnels and Bridges," Virginia Department of Transportation, http://www.virginiadot.org/travel/hro-tunnel-default.asp; "Downtown Tunnel," Elizabeth River Tunnels, https://www.driveert.com/#/about-facilities; "Scheduled Berkley Bridge lifts begin today," The Virginian-Pilot, October 19, 2009, https://pilotonline.com/news/local/transportation/article_3b8115c3-7b73-5ff8-afab-a5fe77e7b85b.html; "Fact Sheet - Elizabeth River Tunnels," Virginia Department of ransportation, http://www.virginiadot.org/projects/resources/TunnelFact_Sheet_080729.pdf (last checked November 1, 2020)
2. "Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel Expansion Project," Virginia Department of Transportation, September 11, 2019, https://www.hrbtexpansion.org/documents/2019/dbe-swam/hrbt_expansion_project_presentation_dbe-swam_event_final_2019-09-11.pdf (last checked December 2, 2019)
3. R. N. Robertson, Gary R. Allen, "Impact Of Removal Of Tolls On Travel In Tidewater Virginia, Volume I- Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel," Virginia Highway & Transportation Research Council, 1977, p.1, http://www.virginiadot.org/vtrc/main/online_reports/pdf/78-r4.pdf; "Hampton Roads Tunnels and Bridges," Virginia Department of Transportation, http://www.virginiadot.org/travel/hro-tunnel-default.asp (last checked November 12, 2018)
4. "Hampton Roads Tunnels and Bridges," Virginia Department of Transportation, http://www.virginiadot.org/travel/hro-tunnel-default.asp; "About Midtown Tunnel," Elizabeth River Tunnels, https://www.driveert.com/project-info/midtown-tunnel/; "US 58 West Midtown Tunnel Facts," Elizabeth River Tunnels, https://www.driveert.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/ERT_fastfacts_Midtown-Tunnel_070915.pdf (last checked November 12, 2018)
5. "5-figure debts for tunnel tolls? Virginia transportation secretary plans to pressure private firm," The Virginian-Pilot, March 15, 2017, https://pilotonline.com/news/government/virginia/article_c548146e-5f6d-571c-a023-62659b19673b.html; "The latest tactic for Virginia's governor against the hated tunnel tolls? Public shaming," The Virginian-Pilot, March 25, 2017, https://pilotonline.com/news/local/transportation/getting-around/article_8c72f851-8542-5d9e-a766-d08fc970770f.html; "Tolls increasing again at Midtown, Downtown tunnels," The Virginian-Pilot, November 8, 2018, https://pilotonline.com/news/local/transportation/article_8f50a240-e39c-11e8-b29e-1b71445b652a.html; "Elizabeth River Crossings, operator of the Downtown and Midtown tunnels, sold for more than $2 billion," The Virginian-Pilot, November 9, 2020, https://www.pilotonline.com/news/transportation/vp-bz-erc-tunnel-sold-20201109-gqghaif3jrc4zgjlsmgd367txa-story.html (last checked November 10, 2020)
6. "Hampton Roads Tunnels and Bridges," Virginia Department of Transportation, https://www.virginiadot.org/travel/hro-tunnel-default.asp (last checked December 2, 2019)
7. "Why do bridge openings take so long in Hampton Roads?," The Virginian-Pilot, January 3, 2019, https://www.pilotonline.com/ask/article_eef3f188-fe4b-11e8-b2b5-5bdd7768bec9.html; "Hampton Roads Tunnels and Bridges," Virginia Department of Transportation, https://www.virginiadot.org/travel/hro-tunnel-default.asp; " James River Bridge (US-17)," Roads to the Future, http://www.roadstothefuture.com/US17_JRB.html (last checked December 2, 2019)
8. "Download NBI ASCII files," Federal Highway Administration, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/bridge/nbi/ascii.cfm (last checked April 30, 2020)
9. "Gilmerton Replacement Project," Virginia Department of Transportation, http://www.virginiadot.org/VDOT/Projects/Hampton_Roads/asset_upload_file562_44966.pdf; Kevin Johns, "Design and Construction of the Gilmerton Vertical Lift Bridge," A Presentation to The AASHTO Technical Subcommittee for Movable Bridges, June 27, 2016, http://sp.bridges.transportation.org/Documents/2016%20PRESENTATIONS%20SCOBS%20Annual%20Meeting/T-8%20Glimerton%20Vertical%20Lift%20Bridge%20Replacement%20-%20Kevin%20Johns.pdf (last checked April 27, 2020)

the tunnel component of the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel
the tunnel component of the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel

a second tunnel was added at Midtown Tunnel in 2016, so bi-directional traffic now occurs only during repairs
a second tunnel was added at Midtown Tunnel in 2016, so bi-directional traffic now occurs only during repairs
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Midtown Tunnel, Norfolk side (2007)


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