Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel

The Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT) is the 3.5-mile (5.6 km)-long Hampton Roads crossing for Interstate 64 and U.S. Route 60. It is a four-lane facility comprising bridges, trestles, man-made islands, and tunnels under the main shipping channels for Hampton Roads harbor in the southeastern portion of Virginia in the United States.

It connects the historic Phoebus area of the independent city of Hampton near Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula with Willoughby Spit in the city of Norfolk in South Hampton Roads, and is part of the Hampton Roads Beltway.


A man-made island across the navigational channel of the mouth of Hampton Roads from Old Point Comfort was created for Fort Calhoun (a portion of the Fort Monroe complex later renamed Fort Wool). This man-made island found a new purpose in 1957, when it was used to anchor the south part of the Hampton Roads Bridge-tunnel.

The HRBT has two 12-foot (3.7 m)-wide (3.7 m) lanes each way, on separately built bridge-tunnel structures. The original two-lane structure replaced a ferry system and opened November 1, 1957 at a cost of $44 million dollars as a toll facility. The bridge-tunnel was originally signed as State Route 168 and U.S. Route 60. It later received the Interstate 64 designation, and, much later, SR 168 was truncated south of the crossing.

The construction of the original HRBT was funded with toll revenue bonds. The bonds were paid off before a second portion was opened in 1976.

The construction of the $95 million second portion of the HRBT was funded as part of the Interstate Highway System as authorized under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, as a portion of I-64, which means that it was funded with 90% FHWA funds from the Highway Trust Fund and 10% state DOT funds. When the second span was opened to traffic, the tolls were removed from the earlier portion.

The I-64 HRBT has two man-made tunnel portal islands, at the place where Hampton Roads flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The two man-made tunnel portal islands were widened to the west to accommodate the parallel bridge-tunnel project work accomplished between 1972 and 1976.

The Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel south portal island connects to preexisting land, about 20 acres (8 ha) of land that is the site of Fort Wool, a fort during the American Civil War, World War I and World War II, and a public park since 1970. Fort Wool is on a man-made island known as Rip Raps, created in 1818. There is a small earthen causeway that connects Fort Wool to the HRBT south portal island.

The current westbound tunnel is the original tunnel constructed in 1957 and has a lower clearance than the newer eastbound tube built in the 1970s—13'6" (4.1 m) as opposed to 14'6" (4.4 m). There have been several accidents and at least one fatality arising from this anomaly. Special over-height detectors have been installed near the Willoughby Spit end to help prevent future incidents.

Given its proximity to the U.S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet home base at Naval Station Norfolk, many nearby shipyards and critical port facilities, the HRBT design incorporates a tunnel instead of a more cost effective drawbridge. A bridge-tunnel, if destroyed in wartime or due to natural disaster, would not block the vital shipping channels.

Another four-lane facility, the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel (MMMBT) was completed in 1992. The MMMBT provided a second bridge-tunnel crossing of the Hampton Roads harbor, supplementing the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and providing some traffic relief. The MMMBT also forms part of the Hampton Roads Beltway, and is also toll-free.

July 2009 flood

In July 2009, the westbound tube partially flooded after a thunderstorm hit the Hampton Roads region. The flooding was caused by a failed water main, which burst and led a chamber below the tunnel roadway to fill with millions of gallons of water. Pumps designed to remove water from the chamber were overwhelmed, and water began to puddle on the roadway, forcing VDOT to close the tunnel for nearly seven hours during midday on July 2, 2009.

This closure forced hundreds of thousands of commuters, tourists, as well as Hampton Roads residents heading westbound for the Fourth of July holiday, to divert and go through the MMMBT or the James River Bridge, the only alternate routes to get to the Peninsula. The MMMBT had troubles of its own during the afternoon, as a pileup shut down the westbound lanes, closing the tunnel and causing a 20-mile traffic jam along I-664. The James River Bridge was also closed on July 2 because of downed wires from the storm. The series of events involving all three water crossings led to a "perfect storm" of traffic which led to gridlock throughout all major arteries of Hampton Roads.

The flooding of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel caused widespread concern about evacuation capabilities of the region during the approach of a hurricane, as the HRBT, MMMBT and the James River Bridge serve as the primary hurricane evacuation routes for residents of Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Chesapeake.

Future plans

According to VDOT, in 1958, an average of 6,000 vehicles a day used the facility. Almost 50 years later, an average of 88,000 vehicles a day were using the crossing, with volumes exceeding 100,000 during the tourist season.

A long range plan to be funded by the Hampton Roads Transportation Authority (HRTA) would add more lanes to portions of the other major bridge-tunnel across the harbor, the MMMBT (on the western part of the Beltway), and provide new direct access to Norfolk, effectively providing a "third crossing" of Hampton Roads.

Some critics of that plan are concerned that the plan may provide little relief to the HRBT. However, as the HRBT has longer tunnel sections, adding additional capacity with new tube(s) would be more costly than many alternatives. Possible solutions suggested to relieve the HRBT include variable tolls to be highest during peak periods, to encourage motorists to select alternate routes or times of day. Enhanced mass transit services may also provide more affordable relief.


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