Jun 11, 2009
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is considered to be one of the most important and incredible engineering feats along the East Coast of the United States. Opened in 1964, the bridge-tunnel provides a direct link between the area between points in Southeastern Virginia and those found in the Delmarva Peninsula (including Delaware and eastern portions of Maryland). Located where the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean meet, the bridge-tunnel has been voted one of the “Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World,” and for good reason.
Life before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
During the mid 1950’s the Virginia General Assembly recognized the need for more direct transport between Southeastern Virginia and points further south. At the time, vehicles had to make a 95 mile detour to circumvent the bay area and it was proving to be a major inconvenience. The initial solution to the problem was to obtain bond-based financing and begin a ferry service between Virginia’s Eastern Shore and either Norfolk/Virginia Beach or the Hampton/Newport News area of Virginia.
Image: Jeff Kubina
The ferries began operating shortly thereafter, in 1956. Almost immediately the General Assembly began to explore the feasibility of constructing a bridge-tunnel. After four years of research they determined that building a bridge-tunnel was certainly possible from an engineering standpoint. After selling over $200 million in revenue bonds, the Virginia General Assembly was able to prove the project was financially feasible as well. Not a dime of tax money, from the federal, state, or local levels, was spent on the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Opens
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened in April of 1964, having been completed in only 42 months. The ferry service established in 1956 was immediately discontinued.
Image: Kevin Coles
The entire bridge-tunnel complex measures 23 miles, though the actual shore-to-shore measurement is 17.6 miles. The complex includes the following components:
- 12 miles of low-level trestle
- 2 separate 1-mile tunnels
- 2 bridges
- 2 miles of causeway
- 4 man-made islands
- 5 ½ miles of approach roads
The bridge-tunnel is not necessarily the largest ever built but remains special because of the unique combination of different structures used to complete the project. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was also built despite unpredictable Atlantic Ocean weather patterns – including hurricanes, ocean tides, and nor’easters. The completed project had the capacity to accommodate two lanes of traffic – one traveling in each direction.
Image Credit: NatalieMaynor
Expanding the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
As traffic on the East Coast increased the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Commission recognized the need to expand the services offered by the complex. During 1987 they began research to determine whether or not it would be feasible to build a parallel crossing. Again, only two years later, they decided that by the year 2000 they would not be able to provide safe passage for the anticipated levels of increased traffic if they did not build a parallel crossing.
Image Credit: kroo2u
In 1990 the Parallel Crossing Project was approved by the Virginia General Assembly and revenue bonds were again sold to finance the project. The project expanded the bridges, trestles, and roadways to accommodate four lanes of traffic – two in each direction. They did not, however, expand the man made islands or build additional tunnels. It is expected that these changes will be made sometime in the future. The expansion project was completed in April of 1999.
Birding along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
Image Credit: Jim Frazier
Each of the four man made islands along the bridge-tunnel route provides bird lovers with the unique opportunity to study and observe several different bird species. The rocks, asphalt, concrete, and steel have proven to be advantageous to the birds – giving them a place to stop during their annual migratory journeys.
Image Credit: Jim Frazier
Some of the birds usually found in the area include the Northern Gannet, the American White Pelican, the Peregrine Falcon, the King Eider, the Harlequin duck, the Red-breasted Merganser, and more. Individuals who wish to observe the birds on any of the islands must make an appointment with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Administration and will be subject to a fee of $50 per hour to pay for the security escort that will be required to travel with them. Scientists and researchers can pay a $50 fee for an annual identification card which gives them access to the grounds without an escort.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Commission strives to make every trip through the complex as pleasant and safe as possible. The bridge occasionally restricts the type of vehicles allowed to cross due to wind speeds, but these restrictions are usually few and far between. Travelers visiting the East Coast will enjoy taking a detour to include a drive over the bridge-tunnel in their itineraries. It may add a bit of extra time to your trip, but the experience is one you’ll always remember.