New tunnel will be five years late

An aerial view shows construction at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel’s southernmost island. A parallel tunnel project scheduled to be complete last month now will be complete in 2027. Photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

By Stefanie Jackson – It will take almost five more years to complete the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel’s new parallel tunnel, which was supposed to be completed last month.

Bridge-tunnel officials said a new substantial completion date of January 2027 has been set for the parallel tunnel at Thimble Shoals. 

Work on the project began in 2017 with an original July 2022 deadline. 

Challenges with construction and the expiration of a federal marine-life impact permit, among other issues, scuttled the original deadline, said Tom Anderson, the bridge’s deputy director of finance and operations. 

Anderson said the COVID-19 pandemic played only a “minor part” in the delays.

Negotiations continue on whether the extra time will drive up the project’s cost. The total project cost of $756 million remains unchanged, but toll increases will continue as scheduled. 

The bridge’s governing commission voted in 2013 to increase tolls 10% every five years until at least 2054, when the debt on the Thimble Shoals parallel tunnel project will be repaid. 

Anderson and Michael Crist, the bridge’s deputy executive director of infrastructure, said the contractor had to reapply for the federal marine life permit, which prompted a year-long delay.

Another year-long delay dealt with a contractor’s inability to complete concrete walls for the receiving and launching pit for the tunnel boring machine, they said. 

The “armourstone” — the huge stone masses that gird the bridge’s man-made islands — also have proven difficult to penetrate with steel pipes, resulting in delays.

Only one or two pipe-piles can be driven through the granite each day, they said.

The tunnel boring machine arrived this summer in pieces from the manufacturer in Germany, which had assembled the machine and tested it before dismantling it for shipping.

Some pieces are on the bridge’s southernmost island, but most of them are still in the area known as Little Creek, the location of the U.S. Navy base in Norfolk. 

It will take approximately six months to assemble the machine, and boring is expected to begin next spring. 

Crist said the bulk of construction currently is on the southernmost island. On the east side of the island is a muck bin, and on the west side the concrete slab road base is being prepared for the new southbound traffic lanes.

Work has started in the tunnel boring machine’s launch pit to build a concrete cradle that will hold the cylindrical machine. That part of the project will take about one month.

The current price of a round trip across the CBBT, if the return trip is made within 24 hours, is $20 for a vehicle with an E-Z Pass transponder. 

Without E-Z Pass, the toll is $14 each way on off-peak days and $18 each way on peak travel days, which are Friday through Sunday from May 15 to Sept. 15. 

Toll prices are higher for buses, heavy trucks, and large RVs.

Tolls also will fund future construction projects, including building another parallel tunnel, this time at the northern end of the bridge-tunnel, at Chesapeake Channel.

Plans for the new northern tunnel are finalized, but work on that project will not begin until funding is more secured, likely in the mid-2030s.

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