NORFOLK, Va. - When you're driving across the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, you're probably more focused on brake lights than what's happening a few feet away.
However, just over the wall, there are "piles" of progress - piles that are best seen by boat.
"We're using some new technology on this bridge because it's designed to last for 100 years," said Rob Gianna, project manager with HRCAP for marine trestle bridges. "The biggest difference from the piles you see here from the original bridge is there is no steel reinforcing inside of these new piles, so that means we don’t have to worry about corrosion in the saltwater environment."
The HRBT Expansion Project will build two twin-bored tunnels and widen four-lane sections in Hampton and Norfolk to six lanes, plus two part-time drivable shoulder lanes during peak travel. Two lanes in each direction will be free general-purpose lanes, and one lane and one drivable shoulder in each direction will be variably priced tolled lanes.
The 10 new miles of roadway will be built upon piles, which are the bridge's support system. To date, 200 have been driven.
"What's significant right now is that on the North Trestle, they've started setting their pile caps," said Jim Utterback, Virginia Department of Transportation's project director for the expansion project.
As the piles are placed in their templates, they are noticeably higher than the current ones standing. Utterback said it's because the new bridges are going to be higher than the existing ones.
"The deck itself will be 6-8 feet higher than the current structure, so that's a significant jump [to account for sea level rise]."
More than a year into the project, the piles aren't the only visible progress. Off the west side of the South Island, you will see structures in place to prepare for the arrival of the Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM). It's the technology to be used to bore new twin tunnels next to the existing Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.
It will take approximately 14 months to build the 46 ft. high machine, approximately four months to ship it from Germany and another four to five months to assemble the TBM on the HRBT's South Island in a 65 ft. pit. The tunneling will begin in early 2022.
"The tunneling will go from the South Island to the North Island and then turn on a turn table and come back to the South Island," Utterback said. "There are 21,000 concrete liner segments that are put together to make the rings that form the tunnel. All of those will come in through water through barge and come in on this quay."
This will help keep equipment transport off roads, but with bridge operations and island construction, there's bound to be impacts on drivers.
"There's a number of areas where we've narrowed lanes, moved traffic within existing pavement; we've made the shoulders a little bit smaller. We've always struggled with accidents on this corridor - you know, speed differential is a big problem, so you get people going too fast and people going slow, and that usually doesn't mix. In a construction zone, we really need people to slow down," he said.
With more than 100,000 vehicles a day using the HRBT, VDOT reports, completion of the new and improved HRBT in 2025 is highly anticipated.
"We think this project is going to make a tremendous difference in people's commute across the harbor," Utterback said.
Click here to see a simulation of what the new corridor will look like.