‘This is not a small issue’: Bird advocacy group concerned over HRBT expansion project

Local News

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — As the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel undergoes a $3.8 billion dollar expansion, one bird advocacy group is raising its eyebrows at the project, saying a crucial seabird nesting site is at risk because of it.

The expansion is set to add two new two-lane tunnels to the two already there. I-64 will also be widened on both sides of the tunnel.

10 On Your Side spoke with Michael Parr, president of The American Bird Conservancy, who said because of project, about 25,000 birds won’t have a place to return to in the spring and summer.

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“The south island is a major water bird colony. It’s probably the most significant single water bird colony in the commonwealth of Virginia,” Parr said.

Parr’s worried the expansion will wipe out species of royal terns, black skimmers and gulls.

10 On Your Side spoke with Paula Miller, the communications manager for the project, who said the South Island was paved over in mid-October and was completed in mid-November.

RELATED: ‘Historic’ funding agreement for $3.6B HRBT expansion approved

Miller said this is to begin preparing the South Island for the large tunnel boring machine that will sit in a 65-foot-deep pit on the island and be used to build new twin tunnels. 

Parr said he wants to see VDOT do something about this.

“We’d just like to see an equivalent habitat created, and it could be an alternate island,” he said.

VDOT said building an alternate island will not be part of the $3.8 billion project. However, they said they’ve been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the last two years, and determined the HRBT is not a suitable place for the birds.

Although VDOT won’t be a part of construction of a new island, officials said the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is working with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss logistics of constructing an island for the bird population, using dredged material, in the nearby area.

Here’s VDOT’s full statement:

“VDOT is committed to conducting the Project in a manner fully compliant with federal and state regulations, and the Commonwealth takes seriously its commitment to balancing the impacts and benefits of transportation projects.

Over a two-year period, VDOT worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), and other agencies to assess potential conservation measures for the bird populations that have seasonally nested on VDOT’s Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel South Island Interstate Maintenance Facility. As the agencies agreed an interstate facility is not an appropriate location for such a population, the focus of the effort was to identify other nearby locations offering suitable habitat. VDOT engaged researchers at Virginia Tech to conduct an assessment that fully evaluated and vetted onsite and offset options, but all were deemed either unsuitable for the birds, unlikely to be permissible by regulatory agencies, protected as a historic property, or they posed a collision risk with local aircraft in conflict with Navy and FAA guidance.

While construction of a new island will not be undertaken directly in association with the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel Expansion Project, DGIF is currently engaged with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the feasibility of constructing an island for the bird population, using dredged material, in the nearby area. The financing, permitting, and timing of any such effort is to be determined.

Please know that the Commonwealth will work towards the best result possible for the birds and bird habitat in the Hampton Roads Region.”

Watch Madison’s story tonight at 4 on WAVY TV 10.

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