Interstate 264 in Virginia is an east-west freeway parallel to U.S. 58 between Chesapeake and Virginia Beach. The route serves commuter interests from Suffolk east into Portsmouth and Virginia Beach west into Norfolk. Additionally the original Virginia Beach-Norfolk Expressway portion of I-264 serves traffic bound for the Atlantic beaches.
The tolled Downtown Tunnel carries Interstate 264 across the Elizabeth River Southern Branch between Downtown Portsmouth and Berkley in Norfolk. The Berkley Bridge, a double-leaf bascule bridge with a vertical navigational clearance of 50 feet,1 takes the route north from Washington Point to Downtown Norfolk over the Elizabeth River Eastern Branch. Further east, a lengthy collector distributor roadway system separates mainline traffic from ramps to U.S. 13 (Military Highway), Interstate 64 (Hampton Roads Beltway) and Newtown Road on the Virginia Beach and Norfolk city line.
Entering the Downtown Tunnel along Interstate 264 eastbound. The eastbound tube starts at Court Street, while the westbound bore emerges a bit further east below Pavilion Drive. The eastbound tunnel passes directly below an outdoor amphitheater. Photo taken July 28, 2013.
Originally planned as a route through Downtown Norfolk, most of the freeway was complete by 1972 with the exception of the Downtown Tunnel and Berkley Bridge. The Elizabeth River crossings between the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth opened in 1952 with two lanes through the tunnel and four lanes on an undivided bridge. Federal Interstate funding, covering 90% of the costs, was approved to upgrade the 2.2-mile bridge and tunnel complex in 1978.
Work involving construction of a second bore for the Downtown Tunnel, interchange upgrades, and a second four-lane bridge over the Elizabeth River Eastern Branch commenced in 1982. Costing $18.5-million, the new tube for the Downtown Tunnel encountered construction delays for seven months. The August 1, 1986 opening date was pushed back due to problems including a water leak and delays in installing electrical equipment. The revised target date for completion shifted to February 28, 1987, but ventilation fans failed to work properly, offsetting the planned opening to March 7. The fans were repaired and the tunnel opening moved up to March 4, 1987, because of forecasted clear weather. When the new tunnel opened, the adjacent 1952 tunnel closed for a year long renovation project.2 It reopened in conjunction with the Berkely interchange and north end of Interstate 464 following a ceremony held on December 20, 1988.3
Construction continued with a new entrance ramp opening from Waterside Drive to Interstate 264 east on April 9, 1990. This eliminated the old entrance ramp and a contra-flow lane.4 Adjacent work on the $41-million second Berkley Bridge continued to May 24, 1990, when eastbound traffic along I-264 shifted to the new span. The old Berkley Bridge was redesigned for westbound I-264 on the same day. Follow up work in 1991 closed the 1952 bridge for reconstruction.5 The refurbished bridge and an additional portion of the downtown interchange opened to traffic on June 27, 1991.6
Virginia Beach-Norfolk Expressway
Opened as a four lane facility in 1967, the Virginia Beach-Norfolk Expressway totaled 12.8 miles. Construction in the 1980s expanded the toll road to six lanes, with subsequent work in the early 1990s adding two additional lanes. Toll revenue bonds for the expressway were completely paid off and tolls were removed in 1995.1
Virginia requested an extension of Interstate 264 along Virginia 44 at the November 14, 1997 AASHTO meeting, after discussions in the works since 1996. The extension was sought by Virginia Beach to further attract businesses to a city that previously was served by just two miles of I-64. The request was approved by AASHTO, but subject to Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approval. FHWA agreed to the redesignation in early February 1999.11 Sign changes were made starting on May 3, 1999, when highway crews began swapping out VA 44 signs for I-264 shields.12
Downtown Tunnel Tolling
The Downtown and Midtown Tunnels linking Portsmouth and Norfolk were tolled until August 1, 1986. Funds collected over a 34 year period for the Downtown Tunnel and nearly 24 years for the Midtown Tunnel amounted to $149.2 million. This money redeemed the bonds to pay for the original tunnel construction, cover operation and maintenance costs and pay for a refurbishment project on the Midtown Tunnel completed by 1988. The tunnels were paid for on August 1, 1984, and legislation passed by the 1986 General Assembly mandated their removal two years after the debts were paid off.7
Tolls returned to the Downtown Tunnel on February 1, 2014. Funds generated from the All Electronic Toll (AET) collection pay for improvements to the Downtown Tunnel, extension of the Martin Luther King Expressway south from London Boulevard to I-264, and expansion of the Midtown Tunnel with a new two-lane bore. Rates are variable, with higher fees charged during peak hours (5:30-9 AM) and (2:30-7PM). Tolls were increased on January 1, 2015.8,9