A Bridge To Somewhere

Construction On Virginia Beach’s New Lesner Bridge Is Now Underway, But It Has Been A Long And Winding Road To Get Here

The Lesner Bridge In Lynnhaven Inlet

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Driving along Shore Drive on the Lesner Bridge, a visitor can take in the fishing boats on the glimmering water and the seafood restaurants dotting the shore and never suspect that this, one of Virginia Beach’s signature gateways, is deteriorating.  

The John A. Lesner Bridge, a much-traveled Route 60 expansion that crosses Lynnhaven Inlet at the intersection of the Chesapeake and Lynnhaven bays, is corroding away. And the rot can’t be stopped. “There’s a chloride attack on the reinforcement,” says Chris Wojtowicz, project manager at the Department of Public Works in Virginia Beach. “It’s corroding the metal from inside the reinforced concrete, from the inside out.”

Since 1988, inspectors have been finding cracks and saltwater damage in the Lesner, which is actually two bridges, serving approximately 41,000 vehicles a day traveling east- and westbound. (That figure, the city’s official number, comes from a 2008 study and is probably higher.) Attempts have been made to repair the rupturing, often at great expense. “Structurally it’s a sound bridge,” Wojtowicz says. “But it requires a lot of maintenance and the amount of maintenance per year is accelerating.”

When Virginia Beach officials first began talking about replacing the Lesner, George W. Bush was still in his first term. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was tops at the box office, and the Florida Marlins were World Series champions.

Now, after 11 years of studies, public meetings, permit negotiations, contracting snafus, engineer errors and raised eyebrows over rising budget estimates, construction began in June on a new Lesner Bridge.

According to officials, the new $116 million bridge will be 1,575 feet long, roughly the same size as the current one; each new two-lane span will be 53 feet eight inches wide and include 10 more feet of clearance for ships on the water, where there will also be less obstruction. The new Lesner, designed by Figg Engineering in conjunction with the local architectural firm Clark Nexsen, will also be able to accommodate a third lane of traffic in each direction for emergencies.

The project manager is quick to point out the many listening tours, citizens information meetings and calls for public input that Virginia Beach sponsored at the beginning of the process. Getting community input was key, he says, and many of the public’s suggestions were integrated into the design.

“It’s going to be an important piece of infrastructure for the citizens of Virginia Beach,” Wojtowicz says of the bridge, a signpost for Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel visitors in route to and from the Oceanfront. “While maintaining the existing lanes of traffic, we’ll have plenty of room on the road for cyclists, we’ll have plenty of room off-road for pedestrians ... people who want to sightsee, we’ll have a 10-foot-wide path separated from traffic. We’re going to have a scenic overlook we’re building into the eastbound bridge span that will overlook the Lynnhaven River. It’s going to be nice.”

This steel and concrete expansion, named after a long-tenured Norfolk county state senator who is largely forgotten today, is expected to take three years to build. Officials have a plan to maintain all existing lanes of traffic during construction, but there will be at least one 15-month period where pedestrian access will be shut off.

The headaches will be worth it, Wojtowicz maintains. “This is going to be a completely different bridge.”

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