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May 18, 2013

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel still a wonder after nearly 50 years


By Gregory Wright

It’s A Shore Thing Correspondent

Lucius J. Kellam, Jr. dreamed an improbable dream about a colossal bridge-tunnel that would span 17.6 miles of the Chesapeake Bay, connecting Wise Point on the Eastern Shore to Virginia Beach. Through his determination and force of character, he made that dream come true. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT), acclaimed as one of the seven engineering wonders of the modern world when it was completed in 1964, will celebrate its 50th birthday next year.

For 350 years, the economic growth of the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, Virginia’s Eastern Shore, had been inhibited by its isolation from Virginia’s mainland.  Residents made their living by farming and working as watermen, either on the Bay or on the Atlantic. The arduous journey to the mainland was made by ship or ferry.

Kellam, raised on the Eastern Shore, experienced first-hand the hardships imposed on its residents by its isolation. He was educated at St. James School in Hagerstown, Md., at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. That education, plus his experience as a lieutenant in the Navy during World War II, brought him to the conclusion that he had to do something about the problem. Upon returning home after the war, he became a prominent and influential businessman.  But Kellam was much more. Driven throughout his life by a desire to help his fellow Virginians, Kellam volunteered to serve in a wide variety of causes, including the founding of the Northampton-Accomack Memorial Hospital and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

From the 1930s to 1954, the privately owned Virginia Ferry Corporation had managed the ferry service that connected the mainland to the Eastern Shore. In 1954, at Kellam’s urging, the Virginia General Assembly created the Chesapeake Bay Ferry Commission that bought the assets of the private corporation and ran the ferry operation. Kellam was its first chairman; likewise, he served as chairman of its successor, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commission when it was established in 1964. These posts he held firmly in his hands for 39 years.

In 1956, the General Assembly authorized the Ferry Commission to conduct a feasibility study for the construction of a fixed vehicular crossing. The study concluded that the project was indeed feasible and recommended that a series of bridges and tunnels be built. Despite navigational concerns of the Navy and objections of other interest groups, Kellam won legislative approval for the project. The commission selected the engineering firm of Sverdrup & Parcel, of St. Louis, Miss., to design the bridge-tunnel and to manage the construction project.

In 1960, the Ferry Commission sold toll revenue bonds totaling $200 million to private investors, the proceeds of which were used to finance the project. No local, state, or federal taxes were used in financing the bridge-tunnel’s construction.

The Ferry Commission awarded construction contracts to a consortium of Tidewater Construction Corporation, Raymond International Inc., Peter Kiewit Sons’Company and Merritt-Chapman & Scott Corporation. The American Bridge Division of United States Steel Company fabricated the steel superstructure for the high-level bridges. After months were spent assembling the needed equipment from all around the world, construction of the Bridge-Tunnel began in Sept. 7, 1960.

The engineering scope of constructing the bridge-tunnel may be called heroic. At Cape Charles, the contractors established an 80-acre yard to fabricate 90- to 140 -feet long concrete piles. They pounded these piles into place – 3 piles per Bent – with a pile driver named “Big D”. The 375-foot long “Two Headed Monster” trimmed the piles to exactly the correct height and then capped the trestles – there is less than a half-inch height deviation for the entire length of the bridge-tunnel. Finally, the Slab-Setter placed slabs on the Bent caps, thereby lacing the roadway together.

Dumping vast quantities of rocks, engineers built four 5.25-acre man-made islands in the open ocean with rocks, using sand dredged from the Thimble Shoals Channel as fill. They brought “armoring rocks” weighing up to 20 tons to top the islands, raising their height to 30 feet above “mean low water” sea level. The islands were designed to withstand hurricanes with 105 mile-per-hour wind velocities.

TRK Construction Inc. fabricated 600-ton 300-foot long steel tubes for the tunnel portions of the project. It engaged tugboats to tow the tubes for the 1700-mile journey from Orange, Texas, to the staging site located at Sewells Point in Norfolk. Engineers trenched two sections of the ocean floor and put down gravel and screening before aligning the tubes and lowering them into place. Deep-sea divers inspected the tube joints before the tubes were weighted with cement and covered with back-fill.

The tunnel interiors were lined with more than five million specially coated tiles.  Twelve enormous fans ventilated each tunnel; lights were installed. Accompanied by Governor Albertis S. Harrison and other dignitaries, Kellam and his wife attended the bridge-tunnel’s dedication on April 15, 1964. The project had been completed despite the severe conditions imposed by northeasters, hurricanes, and the open seas of the Atlantic Ocean.

Amazingly, only 42 months after construction began, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened to traffic, and, in a worldwide competition, it was selected by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the “Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World”.  The ferry service was discontinued and the commission promptly sold the ferries and other equipment to the Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA) that now operates the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, connecting Delaware with New Jersey.

Residents of the Eastern Shore immediately realized the advantages that the bridge-tunnel afforded them. Interstate travelers appreciated the fact that they could use Route 13 and the CBBT to avoid congestion around Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia.  Moreover, driving the bridge-tunnel proved to be an exciting experience. Even today, travelers are amazed at the sensation of driving for miles across the open ocean.

Traffic on the bridge-tunnel grew so dramatically that, by 1987, the commission began exploring the possibility of building a parallel crossing. Two years later, studies and projections concluded that parallel bridges, trestles, and roadways would be needed by 2000 to meet future traffic demands and provide a safer crossing for travellers. In 1990, when the General Assembly gave the commission the authority to proceed with the parallel crossing, it issued bonds totaling $197 million and again chose Sverdrup (now Sverdrup Civil Inc.) as the construction manager.

The construction contract was awarded on May 4, 1995. Unfortunately, four months later, on September 24, Lucius J. Kellam, Jr. died; at his funeral, he was mourned by thousands of his fellow Virginians. Although he did not live to see the completion of the second span, he died knowing that his dream had fulfilled and that the isolation of his beloved Eastern Shore had been ended. In recognition of his efforts, the CBBT had been named after him in 1987.

The project went forward. It expanded the two lanes into four lanes but did not expand the four man-made islands or add additional tunnels. The new bridges were opened to traffic in April 1999. Again, no local, state, or federal tax money was used for the construction.

The CBBT is 17.6 miles long from shore to shore; its overall length is 20 miles. It has two one-mile long tunnels – one beneath the Thimble Shoals navigation channel and the other beneath the Chesapeake navigation channel. Its two high-level bridges, the North Channel Bridge and the Fisherman Inlet Bridge, soar above two other navigation channels. The remaining structures are 12 miles of low-level trestle, two miles of causeway, and the four man-made islands.

There are 940 overhead lights on the roadways. Bob Johnson, the CBBT Director of Maintenance, says that his specifications require that the lamps last for 20 years. He had hoped to replace the lamps with LED lighting, but the corrosive conditions of the salt air begin deteriorating LED products within two months. Unfortunately, he has also found that LED lighting raises a safety issue. They tend to flash in the eyes of drivers and distract them.

Johnson is a stickler for cleanliness. “The cleaner the equipment, the longer it lasts,” he says. Inspection of the offices and equipment – and the tunnels – proves that he means what he says. Maintenance of the facilities and equipment is constant and ongoing. For example, Johnson has recently replaced the tiles in portions of both tunnels. These tiles, manufactured in Germany, come from the only supplier that Johnson has found that can meet his specifications for reflectivity, porosity and resistance to abrasion. This last is especially important because the tiles are cleaned with heavy brushes that scratch ordinary tiles and ruin their ability to reflect light.

The commission currently plans to construct a second tunnel adjacent to the northern Thimble Shoals Tunnel in 2021 at a cost of approximately $1.2 billion. On that timetable, it will begin its construction and environmental studies in 2018. The commission will finance this latest project through use of reserves – in other words, savings – and bond sales.  Once again, no local, state, or federal funding will be required.

While the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is no longer considered to be one of the seven engineering wonders of the world, it is still the longest structure of its type and is still an engineering feat that amazes the most casual of observers. The “drive across an open sea” still delights the people who come from the Eastern Shore on Route 13 and cross the 20-mile bridge-tunnel on their way to the shores of Virginia Beach.


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