NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – The first underwater tunnel in Virginia, located right here in Hampton Roads, is celebrating 70 years of operation.

The Downtown Tunnel and the adjoining Berkley Bridge are significant connectors to our region, linking Norfolk and Portsmouth. Both have been around since gasoline was only 27 cents a gallon!

While you won’t see any happy anniversary signs or birthday celebrations for either, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Elizabeth River Crossings (ERC) are focused on getting you where you want to go.

The existing Berkley Bridge is not the original. The Berkley Bridge built in 1916 connected drivers from East Main Street in Norfolk to South Main Street in Berkley. It was demolished in 1952 once the new bridge opened at its current location that April. The construction of the 4-lane span, that carried both east and westbound traffic, cost close to $5.3 million.

The Downtown Tunnel opened a month later, on May 23, 1952. It was originally called the Norfolk-Portsmouth Bridge-Tunnel. It cost $0.20 an axle and $0.5 per passenger to travel through it. Over time, that changed to a flat $0.25 to pass through.

Over the years, as nearby cities expanded and the population grew, so did the traffic. The bridge lifts weren’t as coordinated as they are today, and if you wanted to go to Norfolk from Portsmouth, you had to go from two lanes over the bridge, then into three lanes to go through a toll booth, followed by merging into a single lane to go through the tunnel.

Just imagine doing that today!

The tolls were removed in 1986 and a second eastbound tune of the tunnel opened in March 1987, but the bridge lifts and backups remained.

A second span of the Berkley Bridge Tunnel opened in 1991.

As more time went by, the original Downtown Tunnel showed its age. Ceiling tiles inside were proving to be a traffic hazard and were removed. It was around that time that Elizabeth River Crossings took over the tunnel and much to the chagrin of local commuters, brought back the tolls to fund much-needed improvements to the tubes.

WAVY Archive Video: 1991 coverage of the new Berkley Bridge

In 2012, ERC entered a 58-year concession agreement through a public-private partnership with the state and assumed operations and maintenance of the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels.

“Back in 2014, 15, and 16, the Downtown Tunnel underwent a major rehab project. We installed new cameras, new ventilation fans, which are now ceiling mounted, which are greatly significant in the removal of heat and smoke extraction,” said Ryan McLane with ERC.

The lighting inside the tunnel was also improved, making it ten times brighter than before.

Those are just the improvements you can see.

According to the ERC, the tunnels are holding up well.

“The tunnel is in great condition right now; there were no critical findings at any of our last inspections,” said Ryan McLane, ERC Director of Operations & Maintenance. “We’re well within where I would think are the service life of the tunnel being 100-120 years.”

“The bridge overall is in very good condition; we’re probably like I say looking at a rehab in the next couple years, of all major components, it’ll be due,” said Robert Hewett, VDOT Facilities Specialist Sr.

While we may not appreciate it because of backups, bridge lifts and tolls, just imagine what traffic would be like in Hampton Roads if we didn’t have the Downtown Tunnels here. It’s just one of the prices we pay for living so close to the water.

Downtown Tunnel Facts

  • The tunnel carries Interstate 264 and links together Norfolk and Portsmouth.
  • The average daily tunnel traffic in 1953 was 12,900 vehicles.
  • The average daily tunnel traffic in 2021 was 72,803 vehicles.
  • The westbound tube is 3,350 feet in length and the eastbound tube is 3,813 feet in length.
  • The tunnel has a connecting drawbridge, the Berkley Bridge, which extends over the Elizabeth River Eastern Branch and connects I-264 and I-464 on the Norfolk side of the tunnel.
  • When the Downtown Tunnel opened in 1952 the toll was $.20 per axle plus $.05 per passenger for personal vehicles. When tolls were eliminated on August 1, 1986, the toll amount was $.25 flat per vehicle and an additional $.10 per axle for trucks.
  • No pedestrians or bicyclists are allowed to travel through the tunnel.

Correction: The on-air version of this story incorrectly spelled McLane’s name. WAVY regrets the error.