Virginia's Shortcut Across the Chesapeake Bay : Bridge-Tunnel Has Its Own Pier, Islands, Police Force

Times Staff Writer

Motorists sometimes freeze with fear, stop their cars and are unable to drive another inch on this 23-mile, two-lane bridge-tunnel complex connecting Virginia's eastern shore with the Norfolk area.

When that happens, a Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel policeman will drive the frightened person the remainder of the way in the motorist's vehicle over and under the waters where Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.

A Virginia Beach psychologist preparing a scientific paper on the matter is currently interviewing individuals who have experienced the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel phobia.

"It doesn't happen all that often. But we are always on the alert for motorists stopped on the bridge or in the tunnel with the strange anxiety. There are no shoulders on the roadway," said Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Police Chief James M. Barcroft, 50. "We have to get them off the bridge as quickly as possible so they don't bottle up traffic.

"On rare occasions, a frequent user of the bridge suddenly experiences the phobia and stops, unable to go on. They get this uncanny closed-in feeling."

Barcroft runs one of the most unusual police departments in the nation. Most bridges and tunnels of any length have a patrol force concerned with breakdowns and traffic problems. But Barcroft's 44-man unit works every crime and situation experienced by typical municipal police departments.

This is probably the only bridge in America that operates a police academy.

In the current 12-week session of the fully accredited police school are a dozen cadets for the bridge-tunnel police force as well as 11 rookie deputies from two eastern shore sheriff's departments. The 15 instructors include members of the FBI and Virginia State Police.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, built with private funds from a $200-million bond sale, opened in 1962. It is a major link along the Atlantic coastal highway from Maine to Florida, saving 95 miles and 1 1/2 hours driving.

The 31 patrolmen, four corporals, four sergeants, four lieutenants, a captain and police chief in the bridge-tunnel department contend with murders, robberies, grand larceny, suicides, kidnapings, bank robberies, narcotics, pickpockets--you name it--within their jurisdiction on the bridge-tunnel complex.

"We do it all," said Chief Barcroft, who has worked for the department since its inception 23 years ago. "We have delivered babies, captured kidnapers and bank robbers.

"Every time a bank robbery occurs in nearby cities and towns on either side of the bridge our department is notified immediately. The bridge is a natural roadblock."

He mentioned a recent kidnaping thwarted at a toll gate. "A woman screamed and jumped out of a truck as it came to a stop. She was a kidnap victim.

"Two armed suspects also leaped from the truck and fled on foot. A manhunt ensued in the woods along the bridge approach right-of-way. One of the suspects was shot and wounded by one of my men. Both suspects were apprehended."

Barcroft's officers arrest the suspects, do the investigation and process the cases through the courts. The bridge doesn't have a jail. Suspects are held in jails on either side of the bridge.

The Police Department is still trying to solve a 9-year-old murder--a headless, handless, footless body of a woman found on one of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel islands.

There are four islands, each 1,500 feet long, 230-feet wide and 30 feet above the mean low water. The man-made islands were constructed in 35 to 45 feet of water to serve as anchors for the two-mile tunnels beneath two major shipping lanes at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.

It is on Sea Gull Island, 3 1/2 miles offshore from Virginia Beach at the south end of the bridge-tunnel, where pickpockets, robbers and narcotics suspects have been arrested. Narcotics have also been found on motorists stopped for speeding.

Sea Gull Island is a popular spot for local fishermen. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel may also boast the only public fishing pier as part of a bridge in this country. Nearby residents flock to the 652-foot free fishing pier to catch bass, bonito, bluefish, spot and flounder.

Long-distance travelers will often pause for a couple of hours or more while crossing the bridge to fish as a pleasurable and totally unexpected experience on their trip. The bridge operates a bait and tackle shop at Sea Gull Island, where poles can be rented and bait, line and hooks are sold.

Toll is $9 each direction. Locals often have car pools sharing in the toll cost to fish off the pier. The bridge operates a restaurant and snack shop on Sea Gull Island as well.

"You think of a bridge and you think it's all concrete and steel. There's a lot more to it than that," said Chief Barcroft, smiling as he recalled an incident during the streaker craze a few years back.

"Our streaker was a passenger on a bus filled with church people that stopped at one of the islands. He stripped off his clothes and ran through the tunnel naked. When one of our officers caught up with him, he insisted: 'The Lord told me to do it.' "

More chickens than people use the bridge-tunnel. Hundreds of thousands of chickens are transported across the bridge each month to two large chicken-processing plants on the eastern shore. Sometimes crates of chickens fly off the trucks causing still another problem for bridge police.

Now and then someone will stop his or her car and jump from the bridge, committing suicide. There have been weddings on the bridge-tunnel islands and funeral services from the Fishing Pier where ashes have been scattered into the sea.

Tall, silver-haired Lucius J. Kellam Jr., 76, chairman of the 11-member Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Commission since the inception of the complex, was a driving force for the project, called one of the great engineering feats of this century.

Kellam continues to oversee the operation of the transportation facility.

"Plans are to pay off the bonds by the year 2000," he said. "As traffic on the bridge continues to increase more and more each year, we think of expansion. We are considering constructing an identical parallel two-lane bridge-tunnel complex. They tell me to do it today will cost in the neighborhood of $1 billion."

Crewmen on bridge tow trucks have unusual jobs. The wreckers are parked on islands ready for action. Tow truck drivers like John Wilson, 36, also do a lot of walking.

"We alternate two hours on the tow truck, two hours walking through the tunnel, two hours back on the truck, two hours back in the tunnel," Wilson said.

It takes two hours to patrol the tunnel on foot, walking one mile from one end to the other, then a mile back again along a narrow walkway four feet above the traffic lanes.

"As we walk through the tunnel we observe traffic to make sure it's flowing properly. There is a phone every 50 feet. If there is a breakdown or an accident, I call it in and tow trucks and police units respond immediately," explained Wilson, who added: "I spend most of my time waving while patroling the tunnel. Passengers in the cars wave at me and I wave back."

If a vehicle breaks down, it is towed without charge off the bridge or to the nearest island. If a motorist runs out of gas, a tow truck operator puts two gallons of gas in the vehicle at no cost.

On a busy summer day as many as 10,000 vehicles use the bridge-tunnel complex. This time of the year, daily traffic is 4,000 to 6,000 vehicles.

There are few dull moments for the 140 employees of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. As Barcroft noted, there is a lot more happening here than just cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles going back and forth.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World