Bridge-Tunnel Facilities in Virginia

There are three highway bridge-tunnel facilities in Virginia. The definition of a bridge-tunnel, is a facility where a bridge transitions into an underwater tunnel via a man-made portal island. In these cases, a wide body of water makes an all-tunnel route prohibitively expensive. These are rather unique water-crossing facilities. There were no other such facilities in the world, until the December 1997 opening of the Tokyo Bay Aqualine (see also this link), and the July 2000 opening of the Øresund Bridge (really a bridge-tunnel) between Sweden and Denmark.

The Hampton Roads area has very wide bodies of water dividing the area, and also historically has the largest naval installation in the world. A highway crossing across a one-mile or greater width body of water, with a major shipping channel to cross, normally utilizes a high-level suspension bridge design like the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, with about 180 feet of vertical navigational clearance, and at least 1,200 feet of horizontal navigational clearance; some of these bridges have a cable-stayed or cantilever main span, but still with the navigational clearances that I listed. Because of the high volume of warship traffic, the U.S. Navy has historically requested that highway crossings downstream of Norfolk/Hampton Roads naval installations be in a tunnel, so that no high-level bridges would exist that could be attacked and destroyed in wartime or due to a terrorist attack, and block the shipping channel for perhaps weeks or even months before the wreckage could be removed. The result of this policy is that the two crossings of Hampton Roads, two crossings of the Elizabeth River, and the crossing of Chesapeake Bay, have tunnels crossing the shipping channels rather than high-level bridges. Future crossings such as the Uptown Crossing, the parallel Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, and the Third Hampton Roads Crossing, will face the same restrictions. Underwater tunnels are generally much more expensive to construct than a high-level bridge, and they have vehicle restrictions for hazardous cargo, and they are complex to operate with 24-hour staffing needed for incident management (patrolmen) and ventilation fan operation. Lane capacity tends to be lower also.

From the Hampton Roads Crossing Study - Draft Environmental Impact Statement, October 1999, page 19, here is the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) citation as to why the Hampton Roads crossings over major shipping channels are tunnels and not high-level bridges (blue text):
High Level Bridges --
High level bridges were considered for all of the Transportation Corridors crossing Hampton Roads, but were eliminated from further study. A high-level bridge crossing near the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel or at the Elizabeth River crossing would conflict with the required clear zone of the Norfolk Naval Air Station. Also, the Navy historically has opposed a high level bridge over channels used by their ships in the Hampton Roads area. Additionally, concern has been expressed by the Hampton Roads Maritime Association that a high level bridge may limit ship size and hinder future access to the ports of Hampton Roads. There was general concurrence from the Hampton Roads Crossing Study Coordinating Committee to eliminate high level bridges from further detailed study.

Excerpt from I-664 Location Hearing Information brochure, which was distributed to the public by the Virginia Department of Highways, for the Location Public Hearings which were held March 13 and 14, 1973, on the north and south sides of Hampton Roads respectively (in blue text): A bridge-tunnel water-crossing was selected after preliminary studies as being superior to a high-level bridge crossing for national defense, navigational, and esthetic reasons. National defense reasons militate against a bridge because of the paralyzing effects on access to the Navy storage and shipbuilding yards should the bridge be severely damaged by enemy attack and dropped into the channel. A bridge will also be very prominent when elevated sufficiently to give adequate vertical clearance for shipping, and the approach grades on the north side will have to begin a mile or more from the shoreline to conform with Interstate design requirements.

The three existing bridge-tunnel facilities In Virginia are:

Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, I-64 between Hampton and Norfolk, 3.5 miles long, four lanes wide, layout is bridge-island-tunnel-island-bridge. Opened in 1957, paralleled in 1976. Owned by VDOT.

Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel (MMMBT), I-664 between Newport News and Suffolk, 4.6 miles long, four lanes wide, layout is bridge-island-tunnel-island-bridge. The North Island is actually connected to the tip of Newport News, and the North Approach Bridge is a land viaduct that has its south abutment on the North Island. Opened in April 1992. Owned by VDOT.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, US-13 between Virginia Beach and Kiptopeke, 17.6 miles long, four lanes wide on the bridge sections and two lanes wide in the tunnels, layout is bridge-island-tunnel-island-bridge-island-tunnel-island-bridge. The CBBT is entirely in Virginia; the last 70 miles of the Delmarva Peninsula is the Virginia Eastern Shore. Opened in 1964, parallel two-lane bridges opened in April 1999. Owned by Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel District (CBBTD).

The two proposed bridge-tunnel facilities In Virginia are:

Hampton Roads Third Crossing, 5 miles long, six lanes, proposed layout is bridge-island-tunnel-island-bridge-island-tunnel-island-bridge. This would add six lanes to the MMMBT tunnel facility, and would provide a six-lane Elizabeth River Uptown Tunnel. The project status is that an approved route was announced by VDOT in 1999, the Final Environmental Impact Statement was approved by FHWA in 2001, FHWA issued the Record of Decision on June 4, 2001, and currently efforts are underway to obtain funding to build the project. See my article "Hampton Roads Crossing Study" for the details. Project administered by VDOT.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel - Parallel Tunnels, to provide four-lane service throughout on the facility. Preliminary studies have been done, but traffic need for the parallel tunnels and islands, is probably beyond the year 2010. Project administered by CBBTD.

Links to My Website Articles

For more details about the bridge and tunnel facilities, see my articles:
Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel
Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel (I-664)
Hampton Roads Crossing Study
Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
Hampton Roads Area Interstates and Freeways

Copyright © 1997-2004 by Scott Kozel. All rights reserved. Reproduction, reuse, or distribution without permission is prohibited.

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By Scott M. Kozel, Roads to the Future

(Created 8-14-1997; last updated 6-5-2004)