The Elizabeth River Tunnels Project (ERTP) includes the construction of a new tunnel in place of the Midtown tunnel and the restoration of existing Downtown tunnels in Virginia, US. The tunnels connect Norfolk and Portsmouth in the Hampton roads region.

The ERTP is being developed by Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) in partnership with Elizabeth River Crossings OPCO (ERC) at a cost of $2.1bn. The Commonwealth of Virginia is the owner of the project and ERC will be responsible for the operation and maintenance of the Midtown and Downtown tunnels.

ERTP is also referred to as the Downtown Tunnel/Midtown Tunnel/Martin Luther King (MLK) Expressway Extension Project.

Construction of the project started in June 2012 and is expected to be finished by April 2018. The project will enhance the transportation network in the Hampton roads region. It is expected to generate 500 direct jobs, 1,000 indirect jobs and 200 maintenance and operations jobs.

Hampton Roads Authority and local leaders ranked ERTP as the number one transportation priority in the Hampton roads region, as well as the largest road project to be constructed in the past 30 years.

Project details of Elizabeth River Tunnels

The Hampton roads area has three tunnels, including the twin Downtown tunnels with two lanes and the Midtown Tunnel with single traffic lane. The existing Midtown tunnel is a prominent link between Norfolk and Portsmouth. It is 50 years old and carries approximately a million vehicles each month, which is beyond its design capacity.

The existing Midtown Tunnel’s usage has increased to 600% and the population has risen by 70% since construction. A new tunnel is proposed to reduce congestion, travel times and provide improved and safe connectivity between Norfolk and Portsmouth. The new Midtown Tunnel was constructed adjacent to the existing one and below the Elizabeth River. The immersed tube offers better connectivity between Norfolk and Portsmouth.

The ERTP also includes other key components. Midtown tunnel and the two Downtown tunnels will be repaired and upgraded to the country’s present fire and safety standards. The Martin Luther King (MLK) freeway is being extended from US 58 in London Boulevard to I-264 along with an interchange at High Street. Changes are being made to Brambleton Avenue/Hampton Boulevard interchange in Norfolk.

The new Midtown tunnel was opened in 2016 and MLK expressway extension and repairs to Downtown tunnels are expected to be completed by 2018.

ERTP project benefits

The new Midtown tunnel helps increase the capacity of the existing tunnel. The bi-direction traffic is eliminated at the existing tunnel, increasing its capacity by two fold, improving the safety of the tunnel structure, reducing congestion during peak hours, saving fuel costs, lowering greenhouse gas emissions and easing congestion.

The average travel time on a round trip became 30 minutes shorter after the opening of new Midtown tunnel.

The MLK expressway extension will give the drivers options to choose either the Downtown or Midtown tunnel, offering better accessibility to various parts of the region.

Toll / congestion charges

The tolling on ERTP was implemented from 2014. Toll gates are located at the Midtown and Downtown tunnels in Portsmouth and at the entry and exit stations of MLK expressway extension.

Tolls are collected through automatic toll system instead of traditional toll booths. ERC increased the toll fee after the new Midtown tunnel opened in 2016.

Existing portions of the MLK in Portsmouth and local travel within Portsmouth on the MLK extension will be toll-free. The Gilmerton and High Rise bridges are the non-tolled alternative river crossing routes. Public transportation is also toll-free.

Construction of new Midtown tunnel

The new Midtown tunnel is being built through a public-private partnership between the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and ERC.

Major construction work for the new underwater tunnel involves element fabrication, dredging, excavation support and pile driving. The immersion of last tunnel element was completed in 2015.
The new tunnel is a reinforced box culvert. The ventilation system in the new tunnel is provided by jet fans.

The new Midtown tunnel has 11 immerse tube elements from Portsmouth to Norfolk. Each immerse tube element is 55ft-wide, 29ft-high and more than 300ft in length. The tube elements were constructed at Sparrow point, Maryland and were brought to the site. Waterproof membrane protects the element from water leakage.

To reduce the negative impact on the environment, the project followed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and commonwealth regulations. It was built using ISO 14001 sustainable standards and an environmental management system was used by Skanska.

Safety features incorporated in the new Midtown tunnel

A confined exit traffic corridor is provided in the tunnel for fire and evacuation purposes. The approach roads on either side of the tunnel are located close to the existing tunnel. The approaches of the tunnel are safeguarded by sheet piles, which also help the soils to be intact.

The side slopes were placed at a safe distance from the existing tunnel to reduce unnecessary settlements. Silt curtains were employed to avoid siltation in the river during dredging.

Key players involved with the Elizabeth Road Tunnels Project

ERC signed a comprehensive agreement with VDOT in December 2011 to finance, build, operate and maintain ERC for a 58-year concession period on a performance-based, fixed-price-and-date contract. It will help the drivers and tax payers from exceeding construction costs and delays.

ERC (project partner) is a 50/50 joint venture of Skanska Infrastructure Development and Macquarie Financial Holding Group. The design build teams involved in the construction are Skanska USA Civil Southeast, Kiewit Construction Company and Weeks Marine. The design of the project was handled by Parsons Brinckerhoff, Volkert & Associates, COWI, Systems Support, Transdyn and Federal Signal.

Financing for ERTP

The project is being financed through tolls generated from Midtown and Downtown tunnels, loans and bonds. Design and construction of new midtown tunnel, MLK extension and repair of midtown and downtown tunnels are expected to cost $1.45bn. An additional $1.3bn will be allocated for operations and maintenance. Funding is acquired through tolls, loans and equity.

VDOT provides $421.1m to maintain current low-toll rates. Skanska and Macquaire contribute $272m, while $463m are sourced through a FHWA TIFIA loan. A funding of $675m is procured through private bonds and $251m through revenue generated during construction.