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HRBT History

Sixty years ago, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel “destroyed distance,” uniting Southeastern Virginia

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. – In the history of underwater transportation, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel notched its share of distinctions, including being the first crossing to run between two man-made islands.

For the communities it served, the span’s debut on Nov. 1, 1957, fundamentally altered the landscape. Virginia’s top transportation official described the impact in reality-shifting terms.

 “With this bridge-tunnel, we have destroyed distance and conquered time,” said Gen. James A. Anderson, chairman of the State Highway Commission.

The trestle portion of the HRBT before the roadway slabs were installed during construction.

The trestle portion of the HRBT before the roadway slabs were installed during construction.

The 3.5-mile crossing between Hampton and Norfolk replaced a ferry service and united a region, yanking together a population that grew to 1.7 million today. Its traffic flew ahead of projections. One early estimate predicted daily use would reach 10,000 vehicles by 1980. In 1978, the actual count surpassed 40,000.

The bridge-tunnel – “the H-R-B-T” to locals – was expanded in the 1970s and is accelerating again toward another addition. This fall, the Virginia Department of Transportation officially begins procurement of a $3.3 billion (2016$) project to build a third tunnel, add bridge structure and widen the adjoining interstate in Norfolk to relieve daily 5-mile backups. 

Despite the advances in construction technology over the last six decades, today’s tunnel builders still study the lessons learned from projects in their grandfathers’ generation, including the original Hampton Roads crossing.  The underground conditions, water currents and phasing constraints pose similar challenges now as then, said Martha Gross, major projects manager for VDOT’s Hampton Roads District.

In one example, the 1953 logs documenting subsurface conditions for the original HRBT project have been a great help with initial planning for the new bridge-tunnel, Gross said. Because the soil layers remain largely unchanged today, these 65-year-old, hand-lettered descriptions of ground conditions up to 250 feet below the surface remain a valuable resource; the records allowed preliminary tunnel-design concepts to move ahead even before the new soil borings are completed.

The HRBT’s burden above the water – vehicle counts now surpass 100,000 on peak summer weekends – is a measure of its success. With its 60th anniversary upon us, and with another generation of engineers and planners shaping its future, let’s look back at the birth of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

A mammoth endeavor

Measuring 7,479 feet from portal to portal, the HRBT was the longest “trench type” – or immersed tube –tunnel ever constructed. Workers dug a ditch along the floor of the harbor, lowered 23 segments of prefabricated tunnel sections into place and linked those pieces to form the passageway. 

Measured against all kinds of tunnel construction, including those built by boring through the earth, the Hampton-to-Norfolk crossing ranked fifth longest on earth.

Construction began in December 1954 by the prime contractor, Merritt-Chapman & Scott Corp. of New York. The engineering firm Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Hall & Macdonald, also of New York, consulted. Tidewater Construction Corp. of Norfolk and a litany of other companies helped build the project.

Click on the photo to read the caption.

The steel tube segments – about 300 feet long, 37 feet in diameter and 12,000 tons apiece – were fabricated in Chester, Pennsylvania, at a rate of one every three weeks, and floated down the Chesapeake Bay to a yard at Lamberts Point in Norfolk. There, each segment received an 18-inch concrete pour on its roadway slab and other work before being towed the last 5 miles to its destination.

The tunnel segments were lowered over 14 months, north to south, one after the other, except for two that went in early from the southern approach, so construction could begin on the South Island. This meant the last segment had to fit snugly in a slot between two others, underscoring the need for precision along the entire underwater operation.

To keep the tunnel’s total length as close to plans as possible, divers ratcheted each newly placed section to the last one, drawing them together to minimize any error that might accumulate over the placement of all 23 tubes.

Engineers, planning for the possibility that the last two sections would not meet up exactly, designed the final joint so it could accommodate an adjustment of up to 2 feet.

“Of this, only 5 inches had to be used, which attests the accuracy of design and construction,” wrote John O. Bickel of Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Hall & Macdonald, in an article originally published in The Military Engineer near the end of construction.

Problems and solutions

After each tube was placed, workers installed electrical and mechanical components, poured more concrete and opened the tunnel sections to one another by cutting through their steel bulkheads.

The tunnel was covered with at least 5 feet of backfill. That operation faced a critical situation when a subcontractor couldn’t provide adequate dredge material for it.

Click on the photo to read the caption.

By good fortune, wrote Bickel, the Army Corps of Engineers was dredging a nearby channel. The Corps was collecting acceptable material, and “assisted greatly by discharging this material from its hoppers over the tunnel tubes.”

A 1956 steel strike threw another curveball. The labor interruption caused delays in steel deliveries and jeopardized construction progress, Bickel wrote. The engineers adjusted by redesigning portions of the bridge structures with pre-stressed concrete.

No workers died on the project, which was no small feat for such a giant job built over and under the water. And while weather caused no significant delays in construction, it left a lasting impact on the structure. Several hurricanes hit Hampton Roads in 1954 and 1955, prompting engineers to bolster their designs.

“The frequency and fury of these storms led to intensified studies of these phenomena by the U.S. Weather Bureau and other agencies and as a consequence, a great deal of new information became available,” Bickel wrote in a 1958 presentation on the project to a group of civil engineers.

In The Military Engineer article, he continued:

“The investigations indicated that a combination of all possible adverse meteorologic conditions could produce flood tides considerably higher than any on record, with wave heights reaching 16 feet. While such an occurrence has a low mathematical probability, its possibility cannot be ignored. Several steps were taken to protect the portal islands, structures, and buildings.”

Among those steps, flood gates were added to the tunnel portals – another first for tunnel construction, according to an ad in a 1957 special section of The Virginian-Pilot celebrating the project.

Click on the photo to read the caption.

The dangers of the sea were also taken into account at the islands, which were formed with several million cubic yards of material from the bottom of the harbor.

Unlike the North Island, which is sheltered by Old Point Comfort in Hampton, the South Island is exposed to severe wave action from storms. Its eastern and southern sides were armored with granite quarry stones that weighed as much as 10 tons, with an average thickness of 4 feet. The stones used elsewhere on the islands maxed out at about 1 ton.

The total project cost about $60 million, with work that extended far beyond the water. It also included 23 miles of new highway on land to serve the harbor crossing. The approach road system accounted for about $33 million of the project cost.

When the day came to cut the ribbon on the bridge-tunnel, wind and rain forced the dedication ceremony indoors. Outside, waves tossed about the harbor ferry on its last run.

“Seasickness was readily admitted by several members of the party who made the final trip,” wrote a reporter for the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch.

Motorists who took to the new bridge-tunnel crossed the harbor in minutes, compared to the half hour or longer it once took them by ferry. Sixty years later, more relief is coming for travelers, this time from the congestion that plagues the HRBT. Its expansion, funded primarily with regional taxes, is due for completion in 2025.


Did you know?

  • The original tunnel was lined with about two million 4¼-inch tiles.
  • At its deepest point, the road in the original tunnel tube, which now serves westbound traffic, is 105 feet below the water surface.
  • Construction of the 23 segments of the original tunnel used more than 137,000 cubic yards of concrete. At the time that was enough to build a two-lane highway for 47 miles.
  • Tolls were used to repay the bonds that financed the original crossing. It cost $1.25 per vehicle ($10.81 adjusted for inflation), which was 3 cents less than what people paid to use the ferry to cross the harbor before the bridge-tunnel, because there was no federal tax on transportation through the tunnel. Each passenger cost 20 cents extra. Other tolls ranged from 50 cents ($4.32) for a motorcycle and $7 ($60.52) for a three-axle bus. The HRBT tolls were removed in 1976 when the eastbound tunnel opened.

Additional sources used for this article: The Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Dispatch archives, courtesy of Norfolk’s Slover Library; “The Design and Construction of the Hampton Roads Tunnel,” by John O. Bickel, presented in 1958 to the Boston Society of Civil Engineers