Plenty of Tidewater residents split time between three places: their home, their place of business and sitting in traffic on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. Folks who live on one side of the water and work on the other know this all too well — and have our sympathy for their daily commute.
Thus it is cause for celebration to hear of progress being made in the massive construction project to expand that critical span. It is evidence that the transportation bills enacted in the last decade are bearing fruit and may someday make this a place where traffic isn’t a dreadful nightmare.
It was Nov. 1, 1957, that the 3.5-mile HRBT opened to traffic, knitting the Peninsula and south Hampton Roads together. It was a marvel of its time: an elevated bridge over the water leading to a two-lane tunnel buried beneath the harbor floor.
The bridge-tunnel replaced ferries as the mode of transport from one side of the water to the other, and it cost $1.25 to use (equivalent to $11.58 today). Planning and construction took years, nodding to the complicated task of ensuring a safe crossing for vehicle traffic while protecting water routes in and out for commercial, recreation and military traffic on the water.
Expanded in 1976 to include a second two-lane tube — construction that coincided with the end of tolling — the HRBT has served the region well. Not only does it serve thousands of vehicles daily, it offers a reminder that this is one region with a common future.
However marvelous it was at its debut, however, the span is showing its age. Shuttling nearly 3 million vehicles a month during the summer will cause some wear and tear. But the biggest problem is the congestion at the HRBT entrances, which are a daily headache for local commuters.
Backups to cross the water are an exercise in frustration and give the region an unwanted reputation for traffic. In fact, tourism officials have said that attracting visitors from Washington, D.C., is a challenge because residents there believe the traffic here is bad.
Can you believe it? From folks intimately familiar with the Beltway at rush hour!
The HRBT expansion project intends to alleviate that congestion and provide a more reliably uninterrupted drive from one side to the other. Construction will add two new tubes to create eight lanes of traffic total, which should meet the present and future needs of the region.
The $3.8-billion project will replace sections of the bridges, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation, and will include changes at either end of the HRBT to improve traffic flow and discourage drivers from using adjacent roadways to avoid choke points.
Importantly, the project was green lighted thanks in large measure to the much-improved approach to selecting and paying for major transportation projects in the commonwealth — and specifically in Hampton Roads.
In 2013, the General Assembly and then-Gov. Bob McDonnell agreed to a $6 billion transportation bill that included a dedicated gas tax in Hampton Roads to pay for local roads projects. That fund is administered by the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission, and will provide 95% of the funding for HRBT expansion.
Additional money comes through Virginia’s Smart Scale program, which priorities transportation projects based on need and potential impact, along with some federal money. All told, the HRBT work is fully funded.
That only leaves the actual construction, which is expected to be completed in 2025. The VDOT last month issued a “notice to proceed,” which means things are happening now — though plenty of advance and prep work is already completed.
Dare we dream of a future when, at 4:30 on a Friday evening in summer, one might speed from the Peninsula to Norfolk and on to Virginia Beach without watching the sun set from the HRBT?
Indeed. And we should credit years of work on the state and local level for turning that dream into reality.
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