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

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.”


Connection Corrosion
The Army Corps of Engineers has determined that the current Lesner is “functionally obsolete.” So how are the rest of the bridges across the region?

“The overall condition of our bridges is actually pretty good,” says Keith Nichols, a senior transportation engineer at the Hampton Roads
Transportation Planning Organization (HRTPO), a federally mandated policy body with buy-in from all of the Hampton Roads localities. “Compared to other metropolitan areas our size, we have a pretty low percentage of bridges that are structurally deficient. If you look at Pittsburgh, for example, they have 30 percent of bridges that are deficient, and we only have something like 6 percent.”

Statistically, the Coastal Virginia area does have a large number of older bridges. Many of these major connectors, like the Lesner, extend over waterways and into saltwater. So are they susceptible to the same problem?

“I can’t speak to the status of similarly constructed bridges in the Hampton Roads area,” Chris Wojtowicz says. “But if they were built about the same time, used the same construction and are in close to the same environment, I would suspect that they are in the same condition.” He adds: “The Lesner Bridge is right there on the bay so it gets some serious north and northeast winds from Nor’easters lashing up against it. It’s kind of a harsh environment.”

“We’re working on that [problem] now,” says Andrew Zickler, senior structural engineer at the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). “We’re looking at a number of materials that would make our structures significantly more corrosion resistance.” He adds: “A bridge crossing a river there in Hampton Roads, as opposed to crossing a river in Richmond or Northern Virginia, is going to be treated to a more highly corrosive environment.”

“The corrosion question is certainly an important issue, and I know that VDOT is concerned about it,” says Robert Case, principal transportation engineer at HRTPO, which publishes a Regional Bridge Study every couple of years. The most recent 2012 update offers up a lot of facts about the state of Hampton Roads’ 1,223 bridges, but not much about the Lesner’s specific malady.

“We didn’t specifically look at corrosion,” says Keith Nichols, who worked with Case to write the Bridge Study. “We looked at the condition of the bridges as a whole and whether they are structurally deficient. For us it didn’t matter if the deck was in bad condition or if there was corrosion of the piers. In terms of our study, we’re just looking at the ones in the worst condition, how we compare to other areas and what would it take to get those in the poorest condition repaired or replaced.”

Data on the region’s bridges “looks like we’re doing pretty good, but it’s relative,” Case says. “All of these metro areas across the U.S., including ours, are looking at [finding] money to maintain their bridges.” He estimates that it will cost about $8 billion dollars to sustain Coastal Virginia’s bridge connections in the future. “And that’s a lot of money.”

The HRTPO’s study publishes Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) sufficiency ratings for all of the bridges across Coastal Virginia, based on regular inspections. Bridges are graded from 1–100, and anything less than a 50 score is considered subpar. The Lesner scores a 39.0 for its eastbound side, built in 1958, and a 34.9 for the westbound, constructed in 1967.


Officials have known about this bridge’s worsening condition for some time, but Case says that it’s not uncommon for localities to take a decade or more to fund and implement replacements like this. “I would say that 10 years is standard for a bridge of this expense. My guess is that a lot of that time was spent just getting the money together.”

“And it’s especially the case with the Lesner Bridge,” Nichols adds. “The more years that went on, they tried to accumulate funding, but the costs just kept going up. I don’t know if that was based on inflation or design changes … they were chasing their own tail on that bridge trying to get it funded.”

Bridging The Gap
The tale of how the Lesner earned its reputation as a wasteful “bridge to nowhere” project is a long and winding road.

When city officials began the process, the Lesner was not even mentioned in the city’s official Long Range Plan. Officials began the replacement initiative without even knowing how it would be funded.

It also seems as if well-paid consultants were confused about what was being built. When contractor bids were solicited by the city last year, the winning proposal was submitted by PCL Civil Contractors of Tampa, Fla.—at $20 million less than the next lowest bidder, McLean Contracting of Glen Burnie, Md. Officials discovered a problem. “[PCL] failed to include a price for a line item so we had to throw [the] bid out,” Wojtowicz says. “And the second bid that was submitted was higher than our engineer’s estimate so we had to find money to fill the budget gap.”

City officials discovered during the bid process that Clark Nexsen, the engineering consultant, had incorrectly figured the bridge’s construction estimate—by about $16 million—The Virginian Pilot reports. In the end, total cost estimates for the project rose from more than $89 million (in 2009) to today’s $116 million.

“Sometimes we don’t get it right on the numbers,” explains project manager David Jarman, from Virginia Beach Public Works. “Here, you have what happens during the natural progression of a project. You start off and then people start adding things to it. Standards change. For example, when we started, we didn’t have a full bike and trail plan. That’s the kind of scope change that would increase the estimates.”

Originally, the Lesner project was supposed to be funded totally by the City of Virginia Beach, under the Virginia First Cities Initiative. This gave the city the options of administering its own urban road construction programs and largely bypassing VDOT control. This would be the largest road project Virginia Beach ever attempted on its own—never mind that there was little money to pay for it.


Former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Transportation Plan came to the rescue in 2010, along with the Federal Highway Administration. Beach officials sought and received state (89.9 million) and federal (11.7 million) funds to build the bridge. (The Virginian Pilot reports that both entities refused to kick in more funds to make up for Clark Nexsen’s estimate mistakes.) In the end, the city will spend about $20 million of its own money on the $116 million project.

Wojtowicz does an accounting of what $116 million is buying: “It includes all of the engineering, all of the property acquisition, all the utility relocation, the bridge construction, the landscaping, the lighting. Not just the construction costs but all of the designs, permitting, all rolled up is about $116 million. The actual construction cost for this bridge is $78 million.”

Another cause for the confusion and cost fluctuation is that the new Lesner will utilize a Precast Segmental process, where a bridge is built in short sections and then joined together. “It’s somewhat unique to Hampton Roads,” Jarman says.

Maybe a little too unique. According to notes from a 2013 leadership meeting on the project, VDOT engineers, in an advisory role, were “unenthusiastic” about this construction approach and recommended a less costly design process for the bridge.

“It wasn’t their first choice of structure,” Jarman admits. “They felt that it could be something different. From the city’s perspective, we could have put up the normal, VDOT girder and concrete deck bridge that you see in 90 percent of the bridges around the Hampton Roads area. But the city, through the public participation process, just wanted something a little bit different. We wanted a signature bridge in here. So this is a different structure, a different type of look.”

But did choosing this method affect the budget? “It probably increased the cost a little bit,” he says. “There are some cost differences there. But you also get some savings in some places. It will have a good life cycle cost as far as maintenance goes.”

As the new Lesner Bridge readied for a June 2 start date, some coastal connections were still left waiting on their go-ahead. Keith Nichols at HRTPO cites, for example, Portsmouth’s Churchland Bridge. “They’ve spent years and years trying to accumulate money for that,” he says. “These bridges are not cheap, and they have to compete with other roadways over the same pot of [Federal and state] money.”

It’s not an easy process to replace a bridge anyway. “It took five years just to get the environmental permitting for the Lesner,” Chris Wojtowicz recounts with a bit of weariness in his voice. The project had to pass muster with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the National Marine of Fisheries, the Coast Guard and more. “Every time there was a small change in the design, we had to go back and forth with everyone.”


The importance of this new construction to Virginia Beach can’t be overstated, beach officials stress. “This is a primary route connector that links the northern section of the city, one of the primary nodes,” Jarman says.

“It’s a very critical link for the people living in the Shore Drive corridor to have access across Lynnhaven Inlet,” echoes Wojtowicz. “If that bridge wasn’t there, you’d have to take a 25-mile detour, because you’d have to go all of the way around the Lynnhaven River.”

He is quick to add that the new John A. Lesner Bridge will be corrosion resistant. Low Permeable concrete will be used. “The design life is 100 years. I think that’s kind of significant.”

A Bridge with a View

If you have a time machine, the planned overlook on the new Lesner bridge will be the perfect spot to watch history take place. The area where the Lesner crosses the inlet of the Lynnhaven River has been an important locale since before there even was an America.

The mouth of the river was originally a settlement for the Chesapeake Indians. On April 26, 1607, the Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed, three English ships of note, first landed in America in what is now Cape Henry. After being attacked by the Chesapeakes, they made it here, to Lynnhaven. Captain John Smith originally called the area Morton’s Bay, in honor of sailor Matthew Morton, who was among those wounded in the Indian battle. Later, it would be renamed in honor of the seaport town of King’s Lynn, situated in East England’s Norfolk County.

“Although no Indians were found, the Englishmen did find a fire where  
oysters were being roasted,” reports The Beach: A History of Virginia Beach, an omnibus published by the Virginia Beach Public Library. “The natives had fled, or at least withdrawn, leaving the oysters in the fire.” According to Captain George Percy, the company ate some of the oysters “‘which were very large and delicate in taste.’” Forevermore known as Lynnhaven Oysters, the regional bivalve would become a singular salty delicacy known far and wide.  

In 1700, Lynnhaven Inlet saw Virginia’s bloodiest pirate battle, when the British man-of-war Shoreham, under the command of Captain William Passenger, engaged in a 10-hour war with the pirate ship La Paix and the brutal French pirate Louis Guittar. One hundred years later, the same waterways would become a resting point for British warships in the windup to the War of 1812.

There hasn’t always been an overpass here. The first John A. Lesner bridge was a draw bridge built in 1928. What is now the eastbound side of today’s Lesner was constructed in 1958, while the westbound span was completed in 1967.

Categories: Issue Page Features