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HRBT expansion marks breakthrough as boring machine completes first new tunnel

Spanish boring machine crews celebrate as they complete boring on the first of two new HRBT tunnels. (Photo by Ryan Murphy)
Spanish boring machine crews celebrate as they complete boring on the first of two new HRBT tunnels. (Photo by Ryan Murphy)

Crews of Spaniards who have worked on digging an 8,000-foot tunnel under Hampton Roads for the last year waved Spanish flags and cheered from the top of a huge pit on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel’s north island.

First, moisture started seeping through tiny cracks in the concrete wall. Then, a larger crack formed and water poured through.

Then, after a few seconds more of the tinkling crackling sound, a three-story tall circular section of concrete fell with an earth-shaking thud. Water used to cool the 430-foot long boring machine, nicknamed Mary, poured out as the massive drill broke through concrete and into fresh air for the first time in a year.

“I think what we just heard was the boom heard round Hampton Roads,” said project manager Ryan Banas. “We’ve been waiting for this for almost thirty years, since the early ‘90s. It’s a halfway point for us.”

Wednesday’s breakthrough was marked with celebration, but moments later, the small crowd dispersed and went back to work.

Over the next five months, Mary will execute the world’s longest three-point turn. Then, she’ll dig her way back to the Norfolk side, leaving two fresh tunnels to double the HRBT’s capacity once all the bridge and road work is finally done.

The Virginia Department of Transportation announced last month finishing the expansion project will take longer than originally planned. 

Initially slated to wrap up at the end of next year, VDOT now expects work to continue until at least the fall of 2026.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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