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By Scott A. Lovell, P.E.

The $400-million Dominion Boulevard Improvement Project, finished in 2016, is the largest locally administered project completed in the Commonwealth of Virginia to date. The project transformed Dominion Boulevard, in Chesapeake, from a two-lane road into a four-lane limited access, divided, toll highway composed of three new grade-separated interchanges and a twinspan bridge, crossing the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Innovative funding solutions, a jack-of-all-trades design team, and public involvement helped bridge the gap between concept and reality.

FOR MANY YEARS, Dominion Boulevard, in Chesapeake, Virginia, was one of the most congested roadways in the Hampton Roads region of the state. It was a narrow roadway known for congestion, safety concerns, and a delay-causing drawbridge in dire need of replacement. The Dominion Boulevard Improvement Project, completed in 2016, transformed the roadway, which accommodates more than 33,000 vehicles per day.

The $400-million project converted nearly 4 mi of a two-lane road into a four-lane limited access, divided, toll highway between Interstate 64 and Grassfield Parkway. The project included the construction of three grade-separated interchanges and the twin-span Veterans Bridge-parallel high-level fixed bridges that replaced a substandard height drawbridge that was opened frequently to accommodate maritime traffic in the southern branch of the Elizabeth River (part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in this location).

Throughout its design and construction, the Dominion Boulevard Improvement Project was the city of Chesapeake's top transportation priority. One of the primary goals of city officials was to deliver the project in a "timely manner at the lowest possible cost to the public," according to Earl Sorey, the city's deputy director of public works.

As prime consultant to the city of Chesapeake, WSP USA provided planning, design, and construction support services throughout the project development process. Preliminary design began in April 2004 with an environmental assessment that was prepared in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

City officials targeted completion of the corridor in eight years, but financing difficulties led to delays in the design process. While partial funding was initially provided by state and federal sources to begin the project, that funding was insufficient to see the project through construction. In addition, taking on large debt was not preferable; therefore, an innovative funding plan was needed to bring the project to fruition. This need led to the creation of a financing plan that was a combination of grants, loans, and toll revenue bonds, which required conversion of the roadway to a tolled facility.

At that point, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) required a reevaluation of Dominion Boulevard's projected traffic volumes as well as more environmental impact studies because of the addition of a toll to the roadway. Upon review of the final environmental assessment, FHWA issued its finding of no significant impacts in March 2009, and the project moved ahead.

The toll revenue bonds were issued for the project in October 2012. Combined with state and federal funds and a $151 million loan from the Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank—the first-ever loan through the bank—the project was fully funded through construction. As a result of this novel financing plan, Dominion Boulevard became the largest locally administered project completed in the Commonwealth of Virginia to date.

WSP collaborated with city officials to prepare the loan applications and official statements for the bond issuance, develop operations and maintenance estimates for the facility, and prepare the consulting engineering report, as required by Governmental Accounting Standards Board Statement 34. WSP also participated in presentations to bond-rating agencies, assisted the city in evaluating several options for the roadway's toll-collection system, and worked closely with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and FHWA to finalize the plan that would provide the necessary financing throughout its construction.

THE COMPLEXITY of the Dominion Boulevard corridor demanded out-of-the-box thinking, and one example was the design of the electronic toll-collection system. Early in the decision-making process, WSP, in collaboration with city officials, evaluated all tolling options, including provisions for cash toll lanes within the corridor.

Unfortunately, the capital cost for the additional infrastructure and rights-of-way needed to construct cash toll lanes could not be supported within a toll rate and time frame that were considered reasonable to city leaders. Therefore, an all-electronic, open-road tolling system was selected as the preferred alternative. City officials and WSP embarked on the daunting task of securing approval and design of this new toll system.

One of the key technical challenges presented by an electronic open-road tolling system involved the design of the vehicle classification system. The roadway is located within a narrow corridor, and locations for the overhead gantries to support the electronic toll collection components were limited.

The preferred option was to place the toll gantries on the bridges carrying Dominion Boulevard over the Intracoastal Waterway. Because the vehicle classification system could not use typical "in-lane" components embedded in the roadway because of interference from the reinforcing steel within the bridge deck, WSP specified an overhead, laser-based vehicle classification system.

Another technical challenge was to integrate Dominion Boulevard with the Chesapeake Expressway, one of the city's other toll roads, to create what is now known as the Chesapeake Transportation System (CTS). All toll collection, billing, and auditing functions between the two highways within the CTS needed to be integrated into one system.

WSP and the city collaborated to specify upgrade and/or replacement of some of the existing Chesapeake Expressway components to be compatible with the Dominion Boulevard system. WSP also prepared the request for proposals and technical specifications for city officials to select a toll customer service and billing contractor. The entire system, including the new customer service and billing system that replaced the existing Chesapeake Expressway system, was fully tested and activated in February 2017.

Final design began in late 2010 and included:

  • roadway widening
  • bridge design, including seven interchange bridges in addition to the twin-span Veterans Bridge
  • geotechnical analysis and design
  • maintenance-of-traffic plans
  • stormwater management design
  • utility coordination and relocation
  • signage and pavement marking plans
  • traffic signal and lighting design
  • drainage design, including a major triple-cell box culvert under Dominion Boulevard
  • 245,000 sq ft of mechanically stabilized earth walls at 21 locations
  • noise barrier design
  • intelligent transportation system design
  • toll collection system design/specification
  • preparation of permit applications, including a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) permit for construction over a navigable channel
  • wetland mitigation site design

Because of the tightly constrained corridor and the desire to minimize impacts to surrounding communities, the interchanges needed to have a compact footprint. The configuration of these interchanges included complex geometry and structural systems, including posttensioned, spliced girders at Cedar Road, a braided ramp using a posttensioned integral pier cap at Great Bridge Boulevard, and integral abutments at Bainbridge Boulevard.

Because of budget constraints, the contract documents included an alternative bid option to include the interchange at Cedar Road only if sufficient funding was available. Because favorable bids were received, city officials included the additional interchange in the construction contract. Following award of the construction contract, WSP worked with the city and Dominion Boulevard Constructors (DBC) to prepare an integrated set of construction documents that incorporated the additional interchange.

The final design also included an innovative sequence of construction (SOC) and maintenance-of-traffic plan that were devised to ensure that construction did not exacerbate the already difficult traffic conditions on the roadway and to provide relief from traffic snarls before completion of the project.

Two elements of this plan were critical to achieving these goals, the first of which was the use of Bainbridge Boulevard as a temporary detour during construction of Veterans Bridge. During the design development process, the design team determined that construction of these bridges would be the critical path for the project. Constructing the northern end of the bridges while maintaining traffic along Dominion Boulevard was expected to be challenging and had the potential of resulting in additional traffic delays during construction operations.

Working with the city, VDOT, and FHWA, WSP conducted additional environmental analyses and prepared design plans for improvements to Bainbridge Boulevard that would be necessary to use this local roadway as a detour route for an extended period. Once the detour was in place, commuters along Dominion Boulevard immediately began to see improvements in travel time.

The other key element of the plan that provided significant interim improvements to traffic flow was the use of the northbound Veterans Bridge to carry both directions of Dominion Boulevard traffic as soon as it was completed.

While the Bainbridge detour allowed the northern ends of both bridges to be constructed simultaneously, construction of the southbound bridge could not be completed until the existing drawbridge was demolished. Once construction of the north end of the two bridges was completed, the SOC plan required crews to move on to the northbound structure to complete its construction while traffic was maintained on the existing drawbridge. Once construction of the northbound bridge was complete, both directions of traffic could be placed on the new northbound structure and the drawbridge could be demolished. This plan was executed by DBC, and the first of the twin crossings was opened to traffic in October 2014, providing relief for commuters.

Construction was completed four months ahead of schedule and about $60 million under the initial project budget. WSP was the designer for the project, and its subconsultants included VHB, which provided survey and roadway design support and led the environmental and permitting efforts; Pace Collaborative, which provided electrical and lighting design; and Schnabel Engineering, which led the geotechnical investigation and design. The city entered a project administration agreement with VDOT to manage the design and construction.

Construction was delivered through traditional design/bid/build methodology with a contract between the city and DBC, a joint venture consisting of Branch Civil (then called EV Williams), Bryant Contracting, McLean Contracting Co., and RR Dawson Bridge Co. The construction contract included an incentive clause for early completion, a portion of which was earned by DBC for completing the project ahead of schedule.

The team of MBP and Michael Baker conducted the construction engineering inspections. WSP worked closely with this team throughout construction to ensure that the design intent was successfully implemented and that any issues identified during construction were addressed expeditiously.

In addition, the Dominion Boulevard Improvement Project was coupled with the Dominion Boulevard South widening project, which was also designed by WSP and constructed by Branscome Inc. Although construction of that project began about three years later, both projects were completed at about the same time. As a result, a wider, safer Dominion Boulevard now connects Route 17 from Interstate 64 to the North Carolina state line.

THE SIGNATURE element of the Dominion Boulevard project was the replacement of the 1960s-era double-leaf bascule bridge, known locally as the Steel Bridge, which crossed the southern branch of the Elizabeth River. Because of its low clearance, the drawbridge opened as many as 6,000 times per year to accommodate maritime traffic, resulting in daily disruptions to traffic flow along Dominion Boulevard so that waterway traffic could pass.

Because the piers for the southbound span of the new main channel crossing needed to be located behind the existing drawbridge piers, which had foundations that extended more than 50 ft below the channel bottom, the main bridge span was nearly 300 ft long. Long-span bridge technologies—such as segmental concrete, steel plate girders, and posttensioned, spliced concrete bulb-tee girders—were considered. Ultimately, a spliced bulb-tee girder design was selected based on its cost, constructability, and durability. The design plans included a detailed description of the construction sequence needed to erect the spliced-girder spans. This sequence included the use of a strongback system that enabled accurate placement and temporary support of the 200 ft long drop-in girders until posttensioning could be completed.

Bridge specifications also included advancements in the materials and procedures for grouting the posttensioning ducts, which have posed problems for other posttensioned structures throughout the country. The design also included a two-stage posttensioning system to eliminate the need for replacement of the bridge deck for the life of the structure. These innovations saved time and money during construction and will minimize life-cycle costs for long-term maintenance of the structures.

The new Veterans Bridge has not only improved traffic flow on one of the most highly congested roadways in Hampton Roads, but it has also improved maritime commerce along the waterway by eliminating the existing drawbridge in this location.

DOMINION BOULEVARD traverses an area of Chesapeake that is characterized by residential, commercial, and industrial uses associated with the Elizabeth River. Because of environmental considerations associated with the river, context-sensitive solutions were incorporated into the design.

The biggest challenge to providing a context-sensitive design was threading a much wider freeway within a relatively narrow corridor, while limiting the impact to surrounding residents, businesses, and environmental resources. First and foremost, impacts to residential communities adjacent to the project needed to be minimized without significantly increasing impacts to other resources.

This was achieved in multiple ways. Several alignment alternatives that balanced impacts to residential communities, environmental resources, and a landfill adjacent to the roadway were evaluated. In addition, numerous options were considered for the location of the roadway, interchange ramps, and relocated local streets to balance impacts on the environment and the various uses within the corridor. To accomplish this, the corridor was divided into three segments, with each segment containing one of the three interchanges with local roadways. Three options were then developed for the alignment of the main-line roadway and configuration of the interchange for each segment. Options from each segment could then be combined with other segments to provide a matrix of up to 27 combinations to make up the entire roadway corridor.

Although the project was intended to be constructed within right-of-way that had already been set aside, private development had encroached into the vicinity of the construction area such that initially an unacceptable number of residential and commercial relocations would have been required. Using the alternatives matrix described above, several approaches were developed to minimize these impacts, including:

  • Shifting the main-line alignment to avoid residential impacts to the Dominion Lakes neighborhood
  • Using tight interchange configurations, including a single-point urban interchange at Cedar Road and tight diamonds at Great Bridge Boulevard and Bainbridge Boulevard
  • Incorporating extensive use of mechanically stabilized earth retaining walls throughout the corridor to minimize the overall footprint of the project

Using these context-sensitive approaches minimized impacts to the built environment, but these techniques resulted in slightly greater impacts to the natural environment. To address the environmental impacts, a wetland mitigation site was created adjacent to the project, providing mitigation credits greater than those required by regulatory agencies to offset impacts associated with the project.

THE CITY OF Chesapeake is a flat and low-lying area with poor underlying soil conditions. These conditions created design challenges for the team, particularly regarding settlement of the roadway and bridge elements. To mitigate these concerns, the team worked closely with city officials to pursue various treatments for differing soil conditions. To evaluate soil treatment options, a risk-based cost-benefit analysis compared the goals of the client, construction phasing, long-term settlement impacts, and location of unsuitable material. The results of this analysis led to the development of a comprehensive ground-improvement program for the project corridor.

For areas of unsuitable soils within the critical path of construction elements-or in high-risk areas such as bridge abutments-a pile-supported embankment approach was used. A cost-effective wick drain and surcharge program was established in construction areas that were not on the critical path or near high-risk components.

The pile-supported embankment option—composed of 12-in. square precast concrete piles on a 7 ft grid and topped with precast concrete pile caps and geotextile fabric—was more expensive than the wick drain option, but it could be constructed quickly and provided greater certainty in predicted long-term settlements. The vertical wick drains, which were installed approximately 60 ft deep over a 3 ft grid, were less costly but required significant wait times and posed the potential for greater long-term settlement.

The use of this approach and the resulting ground-improvement program, which resulted in installation of nearly 5 million vertical ft of wick drains and more than 600 ground-improvement piles, was an innovation that reduced the construction schedule and provided significant life-cycle cost savings to the city.

The top environmental challenge on the project involved reaching consensus among multiple regulatory agencies with interests in the corridor, including FHWA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ), the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), and the USCG, which at times had conflicting interests.

For example, the USCG wanted the existing bridge foundations within the river to be removed in their entirety. This would have created a significant challenge with respect to the drawbridge span foundations, which included concrete tremie seals that were 30 by 40 ft wide and extended 50 ft below the mudline of the river.

Removal of these foundations would have been very expensive and would have significantly damaged the river bottom—something that the Corps, VDEQ, and VMRC wanted to avoid. Multiple meetings and discussions later, a compromise was reached that required the existing foundations to be removed 2 ft below the river bottom, resulting in significant project savings and less impact to the riverbed.

Another environmental challenge was road and bridge construction adjacent to a landfill. Construction of the approach embankments for the southbound Veterans Bridge would have involved removal of some of the side slopes of the landfill berm to construct the retaining walls for the approach embankment.

After meeting with VDEQ, the design team and city officials realized that an alternate solution would be required to mitigate impacts to the landfill berm. The solution was to extend the southbound main-line bridge using a low-level trestle structure, which could be constructed without impact to the landfill. While the low-level trestle was slightly more expensive than the retained embankment fill, this cost was offset by the significant amount of time saved in reaching a quick agreement with VDEQ on the permit and eliminating what would have been long-term commitments by the city of Chesapeake to monitor the landfill if it had been disturbed during construction.

Treatment of stormwater runoff from the additional impervious area created by construction of the new roadway was another environmental challenge. To address this, a drainage system was designed that includes open channels alongside the roadway as well as closed-drainage systems in several areas of the project. Runoff collected within this system is conveyed to—and treated at—several large ponds strategically located throughout the corridor. A stormwater pollution prevention plan and erosion and sedimentation control plans were prepared as required to obtain a general construction permit from VDEQ and to address treatment of runoff during construction.

THE CITY CONDUCTED an extensive public involvement program to allow stakeholders to give input throughout project development. The program included three informational meetings, a location and design public hearing, and numerous targeted meetings with as many stakeholders as possible. These meetings provided the public with opportunities to review project documents and graphic illustrations of the corridor improvements and to offer comments on specific issues, leading to some design refinements.

One issue raised during the public involvement process was the need to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians within the corridor, as Dominion Boulevard was part of the citywide bicycle and trail network. A multiuse trail was ultimately included in the project. The trail, which is fully separated from vehicular traffic, runs from Cedar Road to Dominion Lakes Boulevard/Bainbridge Boulevard along the southbound portion of the roadway and includes a 14 ft wide path that is carried along the main-line bridge over the Elizabeth River.

The public involvement effort ramped up as the project entered the construction phase. WSP, DBC, and MBP provided support to the city, which maintained a project website and social media sites to send project updates and encourage public input. City officials also regularly coordinated with local media outlets to disseminate information on project milestones.

The design team also participated in local radio and television programs, met regularly with businesses and churches in the area, and sponsored a food drive to benefit a local church and child-care business. These efforts led to strong community support, with overwhelmingly positive comments received at public meetings.

Since its completion, the Dominion Boulevard Improvement Project has been well received by the public as well as the engineering community. The project received a Crown Communities Award from American City & County magazine; a Project of the Year award from the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the American Public Works Association; a Project of the Year award from the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance for projects valued greater than $10 million; a Grand Award from the Virginia chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC); a National Recognition Award from ACEC; and the Project of the Year award from the American Society of Highway Engineers.

The Dominion Boulevard Improvement Project transformed the city of Chesapeake by providing much-needed vehicular capacity, eliminating significant traffic congestion, vastly improving safety, and opening tremendous economic development opportunities along the corridor.

Scott A. Lovell, P.E., is vice president and area manager for WSP's operations in southern Virginia. As project manager for the Dominion Boulevard Improvement Project, he was responsible for managing environmental studies, analyses, and designs for the project and for overseeing the preparation of plans and specifications.


Owner City of Chesapeake, Virginia 
Designer/design team WSP USA, Virginia Beach, Virginia 
Construction contractor Dominion Boulevard Constructors 
Geotechnical Schnabel Engineering, Glen Allen, Virginia 
Survey and design support VHB, Virginia Beach and Williamsburg, Virginia 
Construction inspection MBP, Chesapeake, and Michael Baker, Virginia Beach 
Electrical and lighting design Pace Collaborative, Virginia Beach


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