Officials Break Ground for $756M Chesapeake Bridge-Tunnel Expansion

Tue September 19, 2017 - National Edition
Emily Buenzle

For the first time in the 53 years since its opening, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel will build another tunnel for $756 million.
For the first time in the 53 years since its opening, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel will build another tunnel for $756 million.

For the first time in the 53 years since its opening, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel will build another tunnel for $756 million.

More than 100 people gathered Sept. 18 for a groundbreaking ceremony on a man-made island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, although they refrained from actually breaking the ground, The Virginian-Pilot reported. According to CBBT Director Jeff Holland, the island will still be open to visitors for two more weeks, so they will wait to begin then.

The project has already gained notoriety, Holland said. “It's one of the most unique projects in the world … [in the 1960s,] They built a bridge-tunnel in one of the harshest locations for waterborne transportation in the world,” said Holland. “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.”

The new tunnel will help to reduce lane closures due to maintenance and crashes — according to The Virginian Pilot, a major crash in one of the existing tunnels could entirely shut down the main route between the Eastern Shore and Virginia. But an additional tunnel would eliminate two-way traffic within one of its existing counterparts.

The last time the bridge-tunnel system was expanded was in 1999, when construction was completed on an additional set of bridges. Currently, each of the bridges support two lanes of traffic in each direction before they merge into single lanes of two-way traffic in the tunnels.

Although construction already started on the channel's other end last month, the project will officially start Oct. 1, after the island closes to the public for five years until construction is complete, The Virginian-Pilot reported. Although the island's fishing pier is set to reopen in 2022, its restaurant will not, since there will be no room left after the tunnel is built. Officials did look into adding more space, but ultimately decided that the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars simply wouldn't be worth it.

Boring In

The project will require a tunnel boring machine, and will be the first in the area to use one, The Virginian-Pilot reported. Dragados/Schiavone, the project's contractors, chose Herrenknecht, a German manufacturer, to build the machine which will be the size of a football field.

Here's how it'll work:

  • First, the machine will be lowered into the construction pit before a 42-ft. rotating head cuts through the earth and removes it via a conveyor belt. The earth is then loaded onto trucks for removal.
  • Next, precast concrete tunnel segments, built by CSI Concrete System in New Hampshire, will be loaded into the machine, before it pushes them into position. As one ring of concrete is put into place, the machine will move forward to remove more dirt and create space for another ring. The machine will move forward 60 ft. every day.
  • After the machine drills through to the other side, it will be taken apart and removed, allowing crews to get to work on adding the road, lighting and mechanical systems.
  • The boring machine will be delivered in parts sometime in October 2018.

    Who Will Pay?

    Because the Tunnel District is part of a state political subdivision, and operates as its own business, it will not use any federal state or local taxes to pay for the bridge-tunnel, although it is tax-exempt, The Virginian-Pilot reported. Instead, the project will be paid for through bonding, loans and tolls. Currently, a one-way toll costs $15 during tourist season, but it will rise 10 percent every five years to help pay for the project.

    Initial bids last year for the project came in at over $1 billion, prompting the board to cut costs by choosing not to expand the island after construction was complete, The Virginian-Pilot reported.

    Plans for expanding the second underwater section of the Chesapeake Channel could happen in 2040.