Inside of the Eastbound I-264 Downtown Tunnel, which is under rehabilitation as part of the Elizabeth River Tunnels Project.
|Official name||Downtown Tunnel|
|Status||Open, under rehabilitation|
|Operator||Elizabeth River Crossings|
|No. of lanes||4 (2 per tunnel)|
|Operating speed||35 mph|
|Tunnel clearance||13 feet 6 inches|
The Downtown Tunnel on Interstate 264 crosses the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River in the South Hampton Roads area of Virginia, US. It links the independent City of Portsmouth with the independent City of Norfolk. In conjunction with the Berkley Bridge, the Downtown Tunnel connects to Interstate 464 to the City of Chesapeake and a continuation I-264 to the downtown and Waterside areas of Norfolk, and on to Virginia Beach. Owned by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), it is operated and maintained by Elizabeth River Crossings under a 58-year public-private partnership concession agreement. Formerly a toll-free facility, open road tolling was implemented on February 1, 2014 by VDOT to help finance repairs and expansion to the tunnel.
In the mid-1940s, Virginia legislators wanted to replace the aging vehicle ferry system that transported its motorists over the waterways in the state. Authorized by a revenue bond act passed earlier by the General Assembly, the commission decided during the 1946-47 fiscal year to construct toll bridges to replace ferry crossings on the York River at Yorktown and the Rappahannock River at Grey's Point and to acquire from private owners the ferries that carried vehicles across Hampton Roads between the Norfolk and Lower Peninsula areas. Shortly thereafter in 1952, VDOT opened a two-lane tunnel (then named the Norfolk-Portsmouth Bridge-Tunnel). It was the first fixed crossing directly between Portsmouth and Norfolk across the Elizabeth River, predating the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel by five years. It was financed and built by the Elizabeth River Tunnel Commission with toll revenue bonds and was completed in 1952. Tolls at the time were 25 cents.
In 1988 and 1989, during an expansion of I-264, the Downtown Tunnel was expanded to two tunnels (two laned in both directions), and the nearby Berkley Bridge were rebuilt and expanded to eight lanes, connecting I-264 to I-464, just short of (and above) the tunnel entrance. Tolls were also removed at that time.
In 2004, VDOT sent out an informal request for information to private entities to gauge interest in pursuing a public-private partnership to help build the parallel Midtown Tunnel and extend the MLK Freeway to I-264. At the time, the project did not include any work at the Downtown Tunnel. Of the three companies that responded, two of the companies, one being the company that ultimately bid on the current project (Skanska), referred to a study funded earlier in the year noting that the only possible way of making the project financially feasible was to toll the Downtown Tunnel as well as the Midtown Tunnel for construction costs. VDOT then began soliciting bids from private companies to partner with the state in executing the Elizabeth River Tunnels Project, which now included the rehabilitation of the Downtown Tunnel) through Virginia's Public Private Transportation Act.
Elizabeth River Crossings, the company formed by interested party Skanska with additional capital by Australian investment company Macquarie Group, submitted their proposal to VDOT. After the lengthy review process required under the PPTA, then-Governor Bob McDonnell and VDOT executed the Comprehensive Agreement with ERC on December 5, 2011. Under the agreement, VDOT retains ownership and oversight of the tunnels, while ERC finances, builds, operates and maintains the facilities for a 58-year concession period.
Under the agreement, work on the Downtown Tunnel will consist of 15 different items that would bring the tunnels up to current NFPA 502 standards, work which includes:
Work on the westbound tunnel began on August 9, 2013 with full weekend closures. After public outcry from the city of Portsmouth, these full weekend closures were changed to nightly closures. Rehabilitation work on the eastbound tunnel began on July 25, 2014 with full weekend closures. The scheduled completion date of the Downtown Tunnel rehabilitation work is August 16, 2016. For every day that work should exceed this date, VDOT is entitled to $7,000 in damages.