When it was built, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was called “one of the seven engineering wonders of the world.”
Now 53 years after the 23-mile bridge-tunnel opened, it’s adding another tube for the first time.
And the construction of that $756 million tunnel will bring another set of firsts to Hampton Roads.
On Monday, more than 100 people came to the man-made riprap island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay between Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore to break ground on the project that’s been years in the making.
The crowd sat on chairs right above where the new tunnel will sit – and they didn’t actually “break” ground, but posed for photos with commemorative shovels and hard hats. CBBT Director Jeff Holland said the island will be open to the public for nearly another two weeks, so they didn’t want to tear up concrete just yet.
Anticipation for the project has been high, Holland said.
“It’s one of the most unique projects in the world,” Holland said. In the ’60s, “they built a bridge-tunnel in one of the harshest locations for waterborne transportation in the world.
“For them to span 16 miles of open water with a bridge-tunnel ... the construction, the maintenance, the operation of this place ... and now building a new tunnel ... that’s interesting to a lot of people.”
Construction started at the other end of the channel about a month ago. But the official start is Oct. 1 when the island that holds special attractions, such as the fishing pier, restaurant and gift shop, closes to the public for the duration of the five-year project.
The fishing pier will reopen when the project is done in 2022. But the restaurant, a longtime favorite of tourists, will not reopen because there won’t be room on the island after the new tunnel is done. Officials decided adding more room – for hundreds of millions of dollars – was not worth it.
Since the project is outside the regular roadway, few travel impacts are expected until the late stages.
The second tube in the Thimble Shoal Channel will be the first in the region built with a tunnel-boring machine.
Past projects such as the new Midtown Tunnel and Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel are “immersed tunnels” – long segments of concrete sunk into place.
Instead, a machine will be lowered into a construction pit. A 42-foot rotating head cuts into the soil, carves it out and hauls it away on a conveyor belt before it’s transferred to trucks.
Precast tunnel segments are loaded into the machine and pushed into place. Once one ring of concrete is finished, the machine pushes forward, excavates more soil and adds another ring.
When it reaches the other side, the machine will be disassembled and removed. Then crews will install the roadway, lighting and mechanical systems.
Earlier this year, constructors Dragados/Schiavone selected German manufacturer Herrenknecht to build the tunnel-boring machine that will eat its way a mile through the bay floor to the other side, 60 feet a day.
In 2015, the company built more than 60 tunnel-boring machines. Since its founding in 1975, Herrenknecht has worked on more than 3,100 projects, including one in the United States – a tunnel that links Miami with its port.
The football field-length machine is being built and will be delivered in parts in October 2018.
The 9,000 pre-manufactured concrete segments that will create the walls of the tunnel are being manufactured in Chesapeake by New Hampshire-based CSI Concrete System.
The finished product will look more modern compared to its ’60s-era companions. It will feel similar to the new Midtown Tunnel, completed last year, with bright LED lights, hanging electronic signs, jet fans and a separate fire exit corridor.
Many Hampton Roads residents scratch their heads at the CBBT expansion.
It doesn’t have congestion so surely, it can’t be the biggest transportation priority in the region. Why would it be built before the much-needed Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion?
The Tunnel District is a political subdivision of the state and operates as a business entity. The district doesn’t use federal, state or local taxes to operate or maintain the bridge, but it is tax-exempt.
This project won’t use state or federal dollars either, instead relying on a combination of tolls, bonding and loans. The toll rate, set at $15 one-way during peak tourist season, will increase 10 percent every five years to help pay for the new tunnel.
Because it runs as a business, the commission aims to reduce risk factors. A catastrophic event in either tunnel could render the key route between the Eastern Shore and mainland Virginia useless. A new tube will reduce lane closures for maintenance and crashes.
The bay crossing was completed in 1964 and last expanded in 1999, when a second set of bridges opened. Traffic moves in two lanes in each direction on the bridges but merges into single lanes of two-way traffic in each of the two underwater portions of the crossing.
Adding a second tunnel will eliminate two-way traffic within one of the existing tubes.
The tunnel expansion has been in the plan for decades and once was set to start in 2025, but thanks to low interest rates, a still-rebounding construction industry and other factors, the CBBT board decided to move forward with the project in 2013.
“It’s been a long, hard, expensive process,” said Fred Stant, chairman of the CBBT commission.
Initial bids for the tunnel came in last year at more than $1 billion, hundreds of millions more than expected. The board decided to cut costs by not expanding the island, thus losing the space for a replacement restaurant.
Expansion of the second underwater section in the Chesapeake Channel is tentatively slated for 2040 or later.
Ralph Northam grew up on the Eastern Shore in Onancock and has driven through the tunnels “thousands of times.”
At 58, the lieutenant governor and gubernatorial candidate is old enough to remember taking the ferry back and forth to Hampton Roads. Long rides, he said. The tunnel was a game changer.
”It was an enormous boost for quality of life, economic development and healthcare accessibility,” Northam said.
He praised the vision of the bridge’s Eastern Shore founders and discipline of the current board to make the facility a success.
”It’s a big deal to the whole East Coast,” Northam said. “It avoids major traffic congestion at places like I-95.”
And while Northam rarely stops at the island – he says he’s usually on a mission – he doesn’t discount its beauty and meaning to tourists.
One couple, Mark and Sandy DePhillips of West Chester, Pa., who were on the island before the groundbreaking, wondered what the event setup was about. They’ve driven across the CBBT for more than 35 years. Neither was aware of the tunnel project – a testament to the wide-ranging impact of the facility to those that may live hundreds of miles away, but not know about the changes.
“We had no idea,” Sandy said. “I’m glad we stopped today.”
Mark remembered the free Coke coupons handed out at toll booths in the past, and taking the kids to the pier. He first crossed the CBBT with his parents as a kid, later as a family to visit the Outer Banks for vacation, and now to visit their son who, lives in Hampton Roads.
“It’s so spectacular, so unique,” he said. “It’s tradition.”
It’s the last time they’ll be able to stop at the restaurant, where in the past they’ve watched submarines cross through the channel.
The groundbreaking is one of four ceremonies planned for the project.
The next will be the end of 2018, when the machine launches its mission. The third will be a “breakthrough” ceremony in mid- to late 2020. A final ribbon-cutting will be in late 2022, when the tunnel is set to open.
Monday, the assembled crowd got to take home a souvenir event tile, similar to the kind that will be found along the tunnel wall when completed.
Each event will have a special tile, and, once done, it will create a commemorative set of four.