- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 13, 2004

CAPE CHARLES, Va. — Oneil Lewis was in the sixth grade when the teacher turned on a black-and-white television set in the classroom, so rare an event that the kids knew something important was happening.

It was April 15, 1964, the grand opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, the 17.6-mile crossing over the lower Chesapeake Bay that connects the rural Eastern Shore peninsula to Virginia Beach and shortens travel time down the East Coast.

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the system of low-level trestles, a pair of milelong tunnels, four artificial islands and two bridges that was once designated “One of the Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World.”

To celebrate, motorists will be given commemorative bookmarks at the toll booths and free cake at the restaurant on one of the bridge-tunnel’s islands.

More than 80 million vehicles — including 3.5 million last year alone — have crossed the bridge-tunnel since the opening of the original two-lane span. A second span opened in 1999 to accommodate growing traffic.

Miss Lewis, 52, of Cape Charles, remembers the first time her family ventured onto the bridge-tunnel, the first weekend after it opened. A trip that had taken one-and-a-half hours by ferry suddenly took only 25 minutes by car.

“It was just unreal to be able to ride like that across the water,” Miss Lewis, who collects tolls at the bridge-tunnel’s southern end, recalled without pausing as she deftly took a motorist’s money, made change and handed back a receipt.

The toll, $10 one way for a passenger car and other two-axle vehicles, is the highest in the nation. A return trip within 24 hours is discounted to $4.

“They were not really sure they could do this,” but engineers determined the project was feasible, said Jim Brookshire, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel District, which oversees the bridge-tunnel’s $11 million annual budget and 170 employees.

The bridge-tunnel took 42 months to construct, at times hampered by hurricanes, storms and rough currents. Seven workers died in construction accidents.

The tunnels were built under two of the world’s largest shipping channels, in part to appease the Navy during the Cold War. The Atlantic Fleet is based in Norfolk, and the Navy feared that if a bridge were sabotaged and a channel became blocked, its ships could not get out to sea.

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