A bad idea: Air dumps in Virginia tunnels
Sneaking through bridge-tunnel is ill-advised

By Aaron Ladage
Staff Writer

As the saying goes, “don’t believe everything you read.” Unless, that is, you’re planning to try to sneak through the westbound Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel near Norfolk, VA.

A new law in the state, which went into effect on July 1, raises the fine from $85 to $500 and adds three points to the licenses of truckers who ignore signs pointing out height restrictions on the tunnel.

This isn’t a situation where authorities are pumping up the fines just to keep trucks out of the area. According to Tyrone Brown, acting facility manager for the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, trucks that try to use the westbound tunnel literally will not be able to fit.

“This is a high-traffic, high volume area – we have a naval base, several military installations and three large ports in this area,” Brown said.

The bridge-tunnel’s history and layout are the reasons for the truck-height problem. Brown said the two submerged tunnels – eastbound and westbound – were constructed about 15 years apart from each other, and the first was built to standards that simply are not tall enough to handle modern truck designs.

“The first tunnel facility was built in 1957, and during that time, truck height didn’t exceed what they do today,” Brown said.

Signage on the eastbound bridge-tunnel helps to alert truckers to the situation, Brown said.

“Let’s say you were coming from the New York area down to Virginia Beach. You would come through our eastbound tunnel first,” Brown said. “On the return trip is the westbound tunnel, which is the smaller tunnel. So we have signage up that says ‘you won’t be able to return this way if you’re over this height.’ ”

Brown said the approach to the westbound tunnel gives truckers plenty of warning about the lower heights, also. Signs have been placed on nearby Interstates 564 and 64, which merge to form I-64 – the roadway the bridge-tunnel is on.

If a truck does make it onto I-64, a series of four over-height sensors – one less than two miles away from the tunnel entrance, one at an inspection station three-quarters of a mile away, another at about a quarter of a mile away, and a fourth close to the tunnel’s mouth – will alert a truck over 13 feet 6 inches tall if it attempts to pass.

The reason for the increased fine, he said, isn’t a moneymaking scheme. Trucks are doing an air dump – releasing the air in their suspension to lower their overall height – to try to sneak past the over-height sensors.

Unfortunately, Brown said, many trucks trip the sensors at stations three and four, after their suspensions re-inflate. By this point, they have already missed the provided turnaround point, and traffic has to be stopped to get the truck out.

Brown said trucks account for 92 percent of all stoppages on the bridge-tunnel. He estimates that trucks sneak past the first two sensors approximately 18 times a day, each of which takes about five minutes to stop traffic in both directions, clear an area for the truck to exit and get it moving in the opposite direction.

“Every five-minute stoppage basically equates to about a mile-and-a-half backup, so it’s become a really big issue,” Brown said.

The tunnel authority has started a notification program that includes handing out flyers to truck drivers and contacting trucking companies to let them know of the fine increase. The program also outlines how to use the alternate route, the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel – built to a height of 16 feet in 1992 – about 25 miles out of the way.

“Even though we’re talking about a 25-mile detour, that could take you anywhere from an hour to two and a half hours,” Brown said.

This extra drive, Brown said, is what’s causing the truckers to take the chance on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

“What the drivers are asking themselves is, ‘Do I want to take the chance and do that six miles and see if I can beat the over-height, or do I just want to take 25 miles and go all the way around?’ ” Brown said. “That decision is being made in the cab of the truck.”