HAMPTON – When Ryan Banas was earning his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at Case Western Reserve University, the required curriculum didn’t include history, archeology, or marine science classes.
However, all would have been helpful in his current job as project director for the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion, where his responsibilities include saving marine life and preserving historical artifacts.
“As an engineer, I wasn’t trained in cannonballs and turtle handling,” he admitted. “That makes it an exciting career. Things like this they don’t teach you in engineering school.”
With a project as big and complex as the bridge expansion in an area rich in history as Hampton Roads, it’s not uncommon to come across artifacts or in contact with wildlife. Even though procedures and protocols are in place for when those occur, it involves a lot of learning on the fly.
“Nobody can train you,” he said. “You just have to experience it and hope you’ve got a good team in place and react quickly and collaborate with a lot of the experts that we have in our area. It’s a lot of fun.”
Brooke Grow, who is VDOT’s communications manager for the expansion project, said the state agency has developed relationships through the years with historical and environmental entities, which are notified when an issue arises.
“Usually what will happen is we work internally, then we escalate as needed,” Grow said.
With historical artifacts, it depends on what item is found, its condition, and where it was found.
“The project team works very closely with a variety of state and federal agencies that provide personnel contacts upon discovery,” Banas said.
When shipwreck timbers were discovered, Banas and his team reached out to the College of William & Mary’s Center for Architectural Research to understand what was discovered and its importance. When cannonballs were discovered, Virginia State Police was called.
“Ultimately, we formed a partnership with the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team at Langley Air Force Base,” Banas said. “They are now on call to recover when we find similar hazardous or potentially dangerous items.”
One of the cannonballs discovered weighed 90 pounds and was traced to 1862’s Battle of Hampton Roads between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack).
Not all items discovered have been as interesting.
“We did believe that we found a second shipwreck a few months ago. Turns out it was a sunken sailboat that had wedged itself on our south island, well below the surface,” Banas said.
He said while discoveries are common, they haven’t resulted in any delays yet.
“Not in a way that was impactful to the project,” Banas said. “There wasn’t anything that we couldn’t absorb into the normal course of business. We’ve been extremely fortunate in that sense.”
The HRBT expansion, which is expected to be completed in spring 2027 at an estimated cost of $3.9 billion, also comes with environmental challenges.
“We monitor all areas to ensure our activities impact the environment as little as possible,” Banas said. “This includes things like sound monitoring and drainage/runoff.”
Sound monitoring involves making sure dolphins aren’t impacted negatively. Endangered and protected species in the Chesapeake Bay, on land, and in the sky have the team’s attention, also.
“We work to protect all wildlife, specifically fish, dolphins, and birds,” Banas said.
Banas recalled one memorable experience when the team had to save a turtle by relocating it. Another instance showing how far the team goes to protect wildlife is how it relocated birds from the south island of the tunnel to Fort Wool. To prevent the birds from returning to the south island, border collies roam the area to scare them away.
Banas is proud of the efforts taken to protect the environment as much as possible.
“It really goes to exemplify we’re not just out here performing work with blinders on,” he said. “We are truly paying attention to the environment. We’re taking the time to preserve history, taking the time to be cognizant of the impacts we have on the marine life, whether it’s turtles or birds or fish.”
As a recreational angler and hunter, that is important to him.
“We want to make sure that we are being stewards of the environment,” he said. “We want to preserve this for generations to come. It’s all of these things that make our job extremely interesting.”
It also provides an opportunity to learn about the history of the area, finding items that have been buried for years, decades, and even centuries. Something he couldn’t have envisioned while in college more than a decade ago he is embracing now.
“Every project has its unique challenges, and ours are wonderful Colonial nesting birds and spotted sea turtles,” he said. “We’re lucky to have the experience and the ability to go through this.”