Tunnel Project Runs Into Trouble: Terns. Lots of Them.

Jun 27, 2019

A cloud of royal terns over South Island and the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in 2018.
Credit Chelsea Weithman

In 1957 a regional transit authority finished an ambitious project – a roadway, bridge and tunnel on Interstate 64 connecting Hampton to Norfolk. 

It’s an important route for locals and for anyone heading to the Eastern Shore or the Outer Banks. It’s also a bottle neck the region hopes to open with the Commonwealth’s largest construction project ever.

It’s four o’clock on a Monday afternoon and, as is often the case, there’s a huge back-up waiting to cross the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. 

Standing just off the road, Virginia Derpartment of Transportation communications manager Paula Miller notes “this is a daily occurrence in the summer time.  It’s 6.3 miles.  We have 100,000 vehicles going through the tunnel along this corridor on a daily basis during peak travel periods.”

Now, she vows, the state will unlock the gridlock with two new tunnels, the first beginning on a manmade island that served as a base for building the original tunnel.  Back then, crews dug a mile-long trench.  This time, to reduce environmental damage, they’ll use a machine with a giant rotating head to bore down 50 feet below the current tunnel.  “It’ll be a machine that starts at the South Island and it will bore under, go down into soft soil, come up on the north side, and then it will bore back to create the second tunnel.”

To do that, VDOT will again need a staging area, and that means clearing the South Island. “The builders are going to create a pit about 65 feet deep, and it’s the length of a football field,” Miller says.

About five years and $3.8 billion later, the tunnels will open but there’s a problem.

After the South Island was built it was discovered by sea birds – royal terns, gull-billed terns and black skimmers that nest in tight colonies according to Virginia Tech Professor Sarah Karpanty. “These terns on the South Island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel nest so close that they are only separated by a body length, so essentially the tip of their bill is touching the rear end of their next door neighbor.”

Virginia Tech professors Sarah Karpanty and Jim Fraser
Credit Sandy Hausman/Radio IQ

The birds don’t seem to mind, because this island offers an ideal place to raise their babies.  It’s far from predators like raccoons and foxes that could threaten the survival of a colony on the mainland.  “They can clean out hundreds of nests in a night or two,” Karpanty notes.

And the South Island is surrounded by waters rich in fish that feed the birds and their hatchlings.  As a result, Virginia Tech Professor Jim Fraser says a massive colony is now in residence. “It’s by far the largest colonial sea bird nesting colony in Virginia," Fraser says.  "It has 95% of the royal terns in Virginia, for example. We estimate somewhere between 16,000-20,000 birds nesting there, and when those birds have chicks running around there can be as many as 25,000 birds on that little tiny island.”

This fall, the birds will migrate to Central and South America, but when they return in the spring, Fraser says they’ll find their habitat gone. “When these birds disperse there’s no telling where they’re going to go," Fraser warns. "Royal terns have been known to roost at airports, in which case they might be killed or harassed by the airport management, and there will be more of them probably in the traffic when they’re trying to figure out what to do and no longer have their old nesting site.”

And, Fraser adds, birds are not the only animals who might die as a result of a failure to plan for our feathered friends.  The proximity of nesting birds to speeding cars and trucks has already proven dangerous.  “There were ten accidents in one year, because of birds going down and landing on the road, and then people hit the brakes at 65 miles an hour and the next thing you know you’ve got a pile-up.”

So the Virginia Department of Transportation asked Fraser and Karpanty to study the situation and suggest solutions. 

You can hear about their surprising recommendation and the response of state officials in this report. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.