HAMPTON—To some, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT) is an engineering marvel, considered the world’s first underwater tunnel connected to man-made islands. To others, it’s a crossing point between Hampton and Norfolk that causes incredible traffic backups—a necessary evil if you work on one side of the water and live on another, or for vacationers heading to Virginia Beach.
The original west-bound tunnel opened on November 1, 1957 and featured two 12-foot-wide lanes running each way. The east-bound structure opened on June 3, 1976 and allowed traffic going in either direction to have two lanes each. The cost of the original tube was $44 million, which was funded by toll revenues. The second crossing’s cost came to $95 million, which was 90 percent funded by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 for the Highway Trust Fund. The remaining 10 percent was picked up by Virginia Department of Transportation Funds, thus eliminating the need for tolls.
As the flow of traffic through the HRBT tunnels has steadily increased over the years, the need for an additional crossing became necessary. While a number of ideas were thrown into the ring for a “third crossing” (including the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel), it was finally decided that an expansion of the HRBT would be the best solution.
Estimated at more than $3.8 billion, the HRBT Expansion Project is currently the largest highway construction project in Virginia history. The construction began in 2019 and is expected to be completed by November 2025. When it opens, the expansion project will widen the current segments along nearly 10 miles of I-64 between Hampton and Norfolk (the bridge-tunnel segment of the journey is approximately 3.5 miles), and it will add twin tunnels (two additional lanes in each direction) across the harbor.
While the completion of the HRTB expansion is expected to significantly decrease traffic congestion, it also represents a significant generator of economic activity for the region and the state. Based on a study conducted by economic analysis from Chmura, the total economic impact to Hampton Roads is estimated to be an influx totaling $4.6 billion between 2019 and 2025.
Of the total economic impact, $2.9 billion is estimated to be through direct spending within Hampton Roads, creating a total of more than 16,000 jobs throughout the construction process. A cumulative indirect impact in Hampton Roads is estimated at nearly $900 million for industries related to the construction including architectural and engineering services, sitework, and road maintenance. Another induced impact of $865 million will come from jobs concentrated in consumer service-related industries such as restaurants, hospitals, and retail stores.
As part of that economic impact, the HRBT Expansion Project has goals set for small, women, and minority-owned (SWaM) and disadvantaged businesses (DBE). As of February 2020, there were 103 SWaM and DBE firms contracted on the project, with awarded contracts reaching $29 million.
Will it be worth the wait? Frustrated commuters and visitors are certainly hoping so. In the meantime, the economic impact the expansion project brings to the region is a breath of fresh air for many that will continue to climb as the new HRBT brings additional visitors to the area.
“The HRBT Expansion Project will open up the region for visitors to experience all that may be enjoyed in Coastal Virginia, from attractions Like the Virginia Air & Space Science Center, Busch Gardens, and Fort Monroe to beaches and water recreation,” said Mary Fugere, director of the Hampton Convention & Visitor Bureau. “Visitors see no borders, so the more accessible our region, the more visitors will get out and explore to the entire region’s economic benefit. The harbor and HRBT should not be deterrents, but means for a fuller guest experience that entices visitors to return.”