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Chesapeake Bay Bridge–Tunnel
2017-07-12 11 23 10 View south along U.S. Route 13 (Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel) crossing the North Channel of the Chesapeake Bay in Northampton County, Virginia.jpg
Coming down from the high-level portion near the north end
Coordinates 37°01′48″N 76°05′09″W / 37.029966°N 76.085815°W / 37.029966; -76.085815
Carries 4 lanes (4 on bridges, 2 in tunnels) of US 13
Crosses Chesapeake Bay
Locale Virginia Beach and Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth to Cape Charles, Virginia, U.S.
Official name Lucius J. Kellam Jr. Bridge–Tunnel
Maintained by Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commission
Design Fixed link: low-level trestle, 2 single-tube tunnels connected by artificial islands, truss bridges, high-level trestle
Total length 17.6 miles (28.3 km)
Clearance below 75 feet (22.9 m) (North Channel)
40 feet (12.2 m) (Fisherman Inlet)
Opened April 15, 1964; 59 years ago (1964-04-15) (northbound)
April 19, 1999; 24 years ago (1999-04-19) (southbound)
Toll Cars $14 (Each direction & off-peak. $18 Peak. Round trip discount available.) E-ZPass

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge–Tunnel (CBBT, officially the Lucius J. Kellam Jr. Bridge–Tunnel) is a 17.6-mile (28.3 km) bridge–tunnel that crosses the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay between Delmarva and Hampton Roads in the U.S. state of Virginia. It opened in 1964, replacing ferries that had operated since the 1930s. A major project to dualize its bridges was completed in 1999, and a similar project to dualize one of its tunnels is currently underway.

With 12 miles (19 km) of bridges and two one-mile-long (1.6 km) tunnels, the CBBT is one of only 12 bridge–tunnel systems in the world and one of three in Hampton Roads. It carries US 13, which saves motorists roughly 95 miles (153 km) and 1+12 hours on trips between Hampton Roads and the Delaware Valley compared with other routes through the Washington–Baltimore Metropolitan Area. As of January 2021, over 140 million vehicles have crossed the CBBT.

The CBBT was built and is operated by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel District, a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia governed by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commission in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Transportation. Its construction was financed by toll revenue bonds, while operating and maintenance expenses are recovered through tolls. In 2002, a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) study commissioned by the Virginia General Assembly concluded that "given the inability of the state to fund future capital requirements of the CBBT, the District and Commission should be retained to operate and maintain the Bridge–Tunnel as a toll facility in perpetuity".

The CBBT is often confused with the similarly named Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which crosses the Chesapeake Bay farther north in Maryland.


Geographic background

In December 1606, the Virginia Company of London sent an expedition to North America to establish a settlement in the Colony of Virginia. After sailing across the Atlantic Ocean from England, they reached the New World at the southern edge of the mouth of what is now known as the Chesapeake Bay. They named the Virginia capes after the sons of their king, the southern Cape Henry, for Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, and the northern Cape Charles, for his younger brother, Charles, Duke of York. A few weeks later they established their first permanent settlement on the southern, mainland, side of the bay, along the James River at Jamestown.

Across the bay, the area north of Cape Charles was located along what became known later as the Delmarva Peninsula. As it bordered the Atlantic Ocean to its east, the region became known as Virginia's Eastern Shore. As the entire colony grew, the bay was a formidable transportation obstacle for exchanges with the Virginia mainland. One of the eight original shires of Virginia was established there in 1634, eventually becoming the two counties of modern times. However, in comparison to mainland regions, commerce and growth was limited by the need to cross the bay. Consequently, little industrial base grew there, and most residents made their living by farming and working as watermen, both on the Bay (locally known as the "bay side") and in the Atlantic Ocean ("sea side").

Ferry system

For the first 35 years, ships and ferry systems provided the primary transportation.

From the early 1930s to 1954, Virginia Ferry Corporation, a privately owned public service company managed a scheduled vehicular (car, bus, truck) and passenger ferry service between the Virginia Eastern Shore and Princess Anne County (now part of Virginia Beach) in the South Hampton Roads area. This system, a portion of U.S. Route 13, was known as the Little Creek-Cape Charles Ferry. In 1951, the Northern terminus was relocated to a location now within Kiptopeke State Park.

Despite an expanded fleet of large and modern ships eventually capable of as many as 90 one-way trips each day, the lengthy crossing suffered delays due to heavy traffic and inclement weather.

In 1954, the Virginia General Assembly (state legislature) created a political subdivision, the Chesapeake Bay Ferry District and its governing body, the Chesapeake Bay Ferry Commission. The Commission was authorized to acquire the private ferry corporation through bond financing, to improve the existing ferry service.

Once the bridge–tunnel was built, much of the ferry equipment used by the Little Creek-Cape Charles Ferry service was then sold and redeployed to start the Cape May-Lewes Ferry across the 17-mile (27 km) mouth of the Delaware Bay between Cape May, New Jersey and Lewes, Delaware.

Studying a fixed crossing

In 1956, the General Assembly authorized the Ferry Commission to conduct feasibility studies for the construction of a fixed crossing. The conclusion of the study indicated that a vehicular crossing was feasible.

Consideration was given to service between the Eastern Shore and both the Peninsula and South Hampton Roads. Eventually, the shortest route, extending between the Eastern Shore and a point in Princess Anne County at Chesapeake Beach (east of Little Creek, west of Lynnhaven Inlet), was selected. An option to also provide a fixed crossing link to Hampton and the Peninsula was not pursued.

Initially, high-level bridges were contemplated to cross over the two main shipping channels on the selected route, Thimble Shoals Channel, which leads to Hampton Roads, and the Chesapeake Channel, which leads to points north in the Bay, notably the Port of Baltimore. However, the U.S. Navy objected, due to concerns that collapse of high level bridge(s) (due to either accidental or deliberate action) could cause a large portion of the Atlantic fleet based at the Norfolk Navy Base at Sewell's Point and other craft within the Hampton Roads harbor area to be blocked from access to the Atlantic Ocean.

Aerial view of the Virginia Beach entrance to the bridge

To address these concerns, the engineers recommended a series of bridges and tunnels known as a bridge–tunnel, similar in design to the Hampton Roads Bridge–Tunnel, which had been completed in 1957, but a considerably longer and larger facility. The tunnel portions, anchored by four man-made islands of approximately 5 acres (2.0 ha) each, would be extended under the two main shipping channels. The CBBT was designed by the engineering firm Sverdrup & Parcel of St. Louis, Missouri.


In summer 1960, the Chesapeake Bay Ferry Commission sold $200 million in toll revenue bonds to private investors, and the proceeds were used to finance the construction of the bridge–tunnel. Funds collected by future tolls were pledged to pay the principal and interest on the bonds. No local, state, or federal tax funds were used in the construction of the project.

Construction contracts were awarded to a consortium of Tidewater Construction Corporation and Merritt-Chapman & Scott Corporation. The steel superstructure for the high-level bridges near the north end of the crossing were fabricated by the American Bridge Division of United States Steel Corporation. Construction of the bridge–tunnel began in October 1960 after a six-month process of assembling necessary equipment from worldwide sources.

The tunnels were constructed using the technique refined by Ole Singstad with the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, whereby a large ditch was first dug for each tunnel, into which was lowered pre-fabricated tunnel sections cable-suspended from overhead barges. Interior chambers were filled with water to lower the sections, the sections then aligned, bolted together by divers, the water pumped out, and the tunnels finally covered with earth.

The construction was accomplished under the severe conditions imposed by nor'easters, hurricanes, and the unpredictable Atlantic Ocean. During the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, much of the partially completed work and a major piece of custom-built equipment, a pile driver barge called "The Big D", were destroyed. Seven workers were killed at various times during the construction. In April 1964, 42 months after construction began, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge–Tunnel opened to traffic and the ferry service discontinued.

CBBT and Lucius J. Kellam Jr.

The Ferry Commission and transportation district it oversees, created in 1954, were later renamed for the revised mission of building and operating the Chesapeake Bay Bridge–Tunnel. The CBBT district is a public agency and it is a legal subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia. However, the bridge–tunnel is supported financially by the tolls collected from the motorists who use the facility.

Cargo ships line up to cross the bridge–tunnel complex at night

Eastern Shore native, businessman, and civic leader Lucius J. Kellam Jr. (1911–1995) was the original Commission's first chairman. In a commentary at the time of his death in 1995, the Norfolk-based Virginian-Pilot newspaper recalled that Kellam had been involved in bringing the multimillion-dollar bridge–tunnel project from dream to reality.

Before it was built, Kellam handled a political fight over the location, and addressed concerns of the U.S. Navy about prospective hazards to navigation to and from the Norfolk Navy Base at Sewell's Point.

Kellam was also directly involved in the negotiations to finance the ambitious crossing with bonds. According to the newspaper article, "there were not-unfounded fears that (1) storm-driven seas and drifting or off-course vessels could damage, if not destroy, the span and (2) traffic might not be sufficient to service the entire debt in an orderly way. Sure enough, bridge portions of the crossing have occasionally been damaged by vessels, and there was a long period when holders of the riskiest bonds received no interest on their investment."

An icon of eastern Virginia politics, Kellam remained chairman and champion of the CBBT throughout the hard times, and the bondholders were eventually paid as toll revenues caught up with expenses. He continued to serve until he was over 80 years old, finally retiring in 1993. He had held the post for 39 years.

The facility was renamed in his honor in 1987, over 20 years after it was first opened to traffic.

Expansion project

CBBT Info Sign
Info sign at the rest area with map of new bridge

At a cost of $197 million, new parallel two-lane trestles were built both to alleviate traffic and for safety reasons. Immediately after completion of the parallel trestles, traffic was diverted to them and the original trestles and roadway underwent a $20 million retrofit, repairing the wear and tear of 35 years of service and upgrading certain features, such as repaving the road surface. The older portion of the facility was then reopened on April 19, 1999.

The 1995–1999 project increased the capacity of the above-water portion of the facility to four lanes, added wider shoulders for the new southbound portion, facilitated needed repairs, and provided protection against a total closure should a trestle be struck by a ship or otherwise damaged (which had occurred twice in the past); partially for this reason, the parallel trestles are not located immediately adjacent to each other, reducing the chance that both would be damaged during a single incident.


While there has been planning work done to expand tunnel capacities as well, the facility currently continues to use only the original two-lane tunnels.

Plans to replace the two-lane tunnels with new and deeper four-lane versions were postponed indefinitely in 2005 at the direction of the Virginia General Assembly. Debate centered around the facts that while greater bay shipping and security would be enhanced by replacing the existing tunnels, the traffic counts and substantial cost estimates dictate that improvements for other water crossings in the Hampton Roads area may become higher priorities. The estimated cost of replacing the tunnels was $900 million. In 2012, it was reported that permitting and design work for a parallel Thimble Shoal tunnel is scheduled to start in fiscal year 2017, with construction to begin in 2021. The estimated cost for just one tunnel is about $1 billion (planning for a parallel Chesapeake Channel tunnel is not included in the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel District's planning horizon, which extends out to 2031).

Despite Virginia's deepening unmet transportation needs in the years since, the finances of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge–Tunnel Commission have been kept separately as recommended to the General Assembly in a 2002 report of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC). The study concluded that "given the inability of the state to fund future capital requirements of the CBBT, the District and Commission should be retained to operate and maintain the bridge–tunnel as a toll facility in perpetuity."

Operations, maintenance, and regulations

One of the artificial islands making up part of the bridge–tunnel complex, seen from the air

Toll collection facilities are located at both ends of the facility. Tolls are paid in each direction. As of 2013, the toll for cars (without trailers) traveling along the CBBT is $15. However, should a car make a return trip within 24 hours of the first, the second trip across costs $5. Motorcycles pay the same toll as cars without trailers. All other vehicles are charged based on size and purpose and are not subject to the return-trip discount. All tolls must be paid either in cash, by scrip tickets issued by the CBBT, or via E-ZPass electronic toll collection. The bridge–tunnel began accepting Smart Tag/E-ZPass payments on November 1, 2007.

All toll lanes including E-ZPass-only lanes are gated for safety concerns and to turn around inadmissible vehicles. For example:

  • Strong winds have blown over certain vehicles. Therefore, some vehicles are banned when the wind speed exceeds 40 miles per hour (64 km/h). Level 6 wind restrictions with hurricane-force winds (at least 70 miles per hour (110 km/h), i.e. approaching the wind speed of a Category 1 hurricane, which is at least 74 miles per hour (119 km/h)), and other inclement weather conditions ban all traffic.
  • Hazardous materials and compressed gas require various restrictions and inspections to safeguard the tunnels.
  • Both tunnels have a height limit of 13 feet 6 inches (4.11 m). An over-height truck in April 2007 severely damaged the tunnels. Repairs took three weeks.
  • Should police activities, accidents, or closures stop traffic from moving freely, gates prevent drivers from entering and then being forced to either back up within the narrow space or to wait too long in the middle of the bridge–tunnel.

The bridge–tunnel management prohibits bicycles but offers a shuttle van for $15. Cyclists must call ahead.

It is mandatory that the bridge be checked and serviced every five years. Since servicing the bridge takes about five years, the work never stops.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge–Tunnel is one of only two automobile transportation facilities in Virginia that employs its own police department (the other is the Richmond Metropolitan Authority Toll Road Police). By original charter from the Commonwealth, it has authority to enforce the laws of Virginia. Emergency call boxes are spaced every half-mile (.8 km) along the bridge. The toll schedule, weather advisories, and other information are available at the official website for the bridge.


Fishing pier on one of the complex's artificial islands

The CBBT promotes the bridge–tunnel as not only a transportation facility to tourist destinations to the north and south, but as a destination itself. For travelers headed elsewhere, the bridge–tunnel can save more than 90 miles (140 km) of driving for those headed between Ocean City, Maryland, Rehoboth Beach, Fenwick Island, and Wilmington, Delaware (and points north) and the Virginia Beach area or the Outer Banks of North Carolina, according to the CBBT district. Unlike the Interstate highways that travelers would avoid by taking the bridge–tunnel, however, the roads in the shortcut have traffic lights.

On the Delmarva peninsula to the north of the bridge, travelers may visit nearby Kiptopeke State Park, Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge, Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge (closed to the public), campgrounds and other vacation destinations. To the south are tourist destinations around Virginia Beach, including First Landing State Park, Norfolk Botanical Garden, Virginia Beach Maritime Historical Museum, Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum, and the Virginia Aquarium and Maritime Science Center.

Drivers may stop at both the scenic overlook at the north end of the bridge and at Sea Gull Island, near the south end. At Sea Gull Island, passing ships may include U.S. Navy warships, nuclear submarines, and aircraft carriers, as well as large cargo vessels and sailing ships. The CBBT authority runs a restaurant and gift shop on the island. Fishing is encouraged from the 625-foot-long (191 m) pier, which is open 24 hours a day, year-round. Restrooms, fish-cleaning stations, and a certified fish weighing station are at the pier. Bluefish, trout, croaker, flounder, and other species have been caught from the pier. Since birds use the habitat created by the bridges and islands of the CBBT, birders have travelled to the bridge–tunnel to see them at Sea Gull Island and the scenic overlook at the north end.


Among the key features of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel are two 1-mile (1.6 km) tunnels beneath the Thimble Shoals and Chesapeake navigation channels and two pairs of side-by-side high-level bridges over two other navigation channels: North Channel Bridge (75 ft or 22.9 m clearance) and Fisherman Inlet Bridge (40 ft or 12.2 m clearance). The remaining portion comprises 12 miles (19 km) of low-level trestle, 2 miles (3.2 km) of causeway, and four man-made islands.

The CBBT is 17.6 miles (28.3 km) long from shore to shore, crossing what is essentially an ocean strait. Including land-approach highways, the overall facility is 23 miles (37 km) long (20 miles or 32 kilometres from toll-plaza to toll-plaza) and despite its length, there is only a height difference of 6 inches (152 mm) from the south to north end of the bridge–tunnel.

Man-made islands, each approximately 5.25 acres (2.12 ha) in size, are located at each end of the two tunnels. Between North Channel and Fisherman Inlet, the facility crosses at grade over Fisherman Island, a barrier island which is part of the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The columns that support the bridge–tunnel's trestles are called piles. If placed end to end, the piles would stretch for about 100 miles (160 km), roughly the distance from New York City to Philadelphia.

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