By Stefanie Jackson – The Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel District, which manages and maintains the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, is readying plans to build a Chesapeake Channel parallel tunnel on the Northampton County side of the facility as work continues near Virginia Beach on the Thimble Shoals parallel tunnel, which is expected to be completed in 2024.
Since the Chesapeake Channel parallel tunnel project is virtually identical to the Thimble Shoals project, little public concern is anticipated, and no public meetings have been scheduled, according to Michael Crist, professional engineer and the district’s deputy director of infrastructure.
The district instead published a legal ad in the April 23 and May 7 editions of the Eastern Shore Post notifying the public of the district’s willingness to hold a public hearing on the project if one is requested.
At least 25 “reasonable requests” for a public hearing must be made before one can be scheduled, Crist said.
The bridge-tunnel opened in 1964 with a two-lane bridge and two tunnels with two lanes each, spanning 17.6 miles across the Chesapeake Bay.
Construction of a parallel crossing began in the 1990s. An additional two-lane bridge was completed in 1999, but construction of the first parallel tunnel did not begin until 2019.
Three loans are funding construction of the $756 million Thimble Shoals parallel tunnel, which will be paid 100% with toll revenue.
When adjusting for inflation, the Chesapeake Channel parallel tunnel – the last mile of the parallel crossing to be completed – will cost about $1 billion.
If construction of that tunnel was funded 100% with toll revenue, the project would not start for 10 to 15 years, said Crist. But if the project was funded partly by a grant, work could start almost immediately.
The district is getting the project “shovel ready” to be competitive for grant funds that would become available when Congress passes its next infrastructure bill, Crist said.
The district is coordinating with the office of Congresswoman Elaine Luria and is requesting up to $500 million in federal stimulus funds, or about half the total project cost.
Getting the money is a “long shot” even though the project can begin as soon as funding is available, and no significant impacts to the environment or natural or other resources are anticipated, Crist said.
Before construction of the Thimble Shoals parallel tunnel began, four public meetings were held, which attracted minimal attendance.
He doesn’t believe there will be many requests for a public hearing because the parallel tunnel project is not “controversial.”
Members of the public are welcome to make an appointment to visit the CBBT administration office and view the project’s draft categorical exclusion, documents showing that a full environmental assessment is not necessary because one was conducted in the 1990s and environmental conditions have not changed since, Crist explained.
The Environmental Impact Statement made in the 1990s as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, will apply to the new tunnel project.
The chapters of the draft categorical exclusion address topics such as socio-economic, cultural, and natural resources, agricultural and open space, farmland, invasive species, air quality, noise, right-of-ways and relocations, and public involvement.
Also addressed are the Department of Transportation Act, Section 4(f), which protects certain publicly owned parks, recreational areas, wildlife and waterfowl refuges, and public and private historic sites, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, Section 6(f), which protects land and water resources.
There are four properties in the project area that are protected by Section 4(f) and Section 6(f): the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge, Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge, Chesapeake Beach Park, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
Every type of resource must be addressed in the categorical exclusion, even if it will be subject to minimal or no impact.
For example, socio-economic data is examined to prevent a situation such as building a four-lane highway through a low-income neighborhood, Crist explained.
But construction of the Chesapeake Channel parallel tunnel would make no such socio-economic impact, since the CBBT runs entirely across a body of water.
The Chesapeake Bay is more likely to be impacted by construction, but the potential impacts are expected to be minimal, Crist said.
The environmental study informed the decision of the contractor on the Thimble Shoals project to hire marine mammal observers to watch for animals such as dolphins, seals, and sea turtles, while concrete piles are being driven.
Due to excessive noise created by the pile driving, work is halted while the animals are in the area and resumes after they leave.
Crist noted that observers will not be needed during use of the tunnel boring machine – which is expected to be delivered this fall – because the machine is so quiet, even workers inside it can barely hear any noise.
The NEPA documents are available to inform similar decisions that may need to be made regarding the Chesapeake Channel project.
Among the documents are copies of letters sent to 36 federal, state, and local agencies, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, to notify them of the Chesapeake Channel parallel tunnel project.
None responded with any concerns about the project. Permitting agencies responded with notifications of the permits that will be required to move the project forward.
To make an appointment to view the Chesapeake Channel parallel tunnel project documents, call the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel District Office at 757-331-2960.
Requests for a public hearing should be sent to Michael T. Crist, P.E., Deputy Executive Director of Infrastructure, Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel District, 32386 Lankford Highway, Cape Charles, VA, 23310, on or before May 21.