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Dogs Assigned to Help VDOT Move Birds

Friday, May 29, 2020

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Recently, officials from the Virginia Department of Transportation tasked a pack of 20 border collies to redirect a colony of migratory seabirds to a newly created habitat.

Previously, the birds’ nesting site stood in the way of pavement work at the $4 billion Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion project, located in parts of Hampton and Norfolk, Virginia.

About the Project

In April 2019, the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission, working in collaboration with VDOT, announced the approval of funding for the $3.56 billion Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel project.

According to The Washington Post, the improvements to the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, one of the largest projects in the commonwealth’s history, is largely being funded by regional gas and sales taxes, tolls and other options.

More specifically, VDOT reports that 95% of the funding will come from HRTAC. Other project funding is slated to include $200 million from the Commonwealth’s Smart Scale program and $108 million from VDOT for the replacement of the South Island Trestle Bridges.

The already-in-place 3.5-mile structure is composed of a couple of two-lane immersed-tube tunnels—the westbound lanes opening in 1957, the eastbound lanes opening in 1976—with trestle bridges running to the shore. According to the VDOT, these tunnels are roughly 7,500 feet long, and traffic on all four lanes can exceed 100,000 vehicles per day during the worst of summer traffic.

The artificial islands were built to provide a transition area from the bridge to the tunnel; at the time the facility was built, the HRBT was the world’s longest immersed-tube tunnel, and was also the first of its kind to be built between two artificial islands, which were made by Merritt-Chapman & Scott.

When the tunnel was built, it was set in 23 sections and welded together, forming over a mile of steel tube. During the final parts of construction, the tubes were squared off with ceilings of pre-formed metal.

A groundbreaking ceremony was slated to take place at the end of the same month.

By February, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Hampton Roads Connector Partners would serve as the project’s contractor, spearheading work on the construction of two new tunnels and widening a highway in the Hampton Roads area. The project was slated to cost $3.3 billion.

Plans for the project include a boring machine to dig underneath the soft floor of a commercial and military channel. Choosing this construction method will cut down on interruptions to shipping traffic. Another set of two-lane tunnels will also be added. During rush hour, the four lanes of Interstate 64 will expand to eight. The Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission was named as the primary funder of the work. VDOT will fund replacement of the bridge trestles on the Norfolk side.

At the time, construction was slated for completion in November 2025. Tolls will be charged on the new tunnels, though the old ones will remain free to use.

Seabird Nesting Site

In January, VDOT announced that it had completed pavement work at the nearly $4 billion Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel project, resulting in the loss of a 40-year-old nesting site for roughly 25,000 seabirds.

Although efforts to rehome the birds have declined since 2017—when the Trump administration revised the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, lessening consequences for bird deaths during construction—some researchers believe that a portion of the bird population might return to the nesting site, while others could migrate elsewhere.

At the time, the Associated Press reported that officials were unsure how the bird population would be affected until their return in the spring, however, it was confirmed that a new island for the birds wouldn’t be constructed anytime soon.

“As the agencies agreed an interstate facility is not an appropriate location for such a population, the focus of the effort was to identify other nearby locations offering suitable habitat,” read a statement by VDOT.

“VDOT engaged researchers at Virginia Tech to conduct an assessment that fully evaluated and vetted onsite and offset options, but all were deemed either unsuitable for the birds, unlikely to be permissible by regulatory agencies, protected as a historic property, or they posed a collision risk with local aircraft in conflict with Navy and FAA guidance.”

Offering her own take on the matter, Terri Cuthriell, with the Virginia Society of Ornithology, expressed that because the location is the only place the birds are known to nest in Virginia, there is a responsibility to protect them. Her solution: build a sand-topped island to which the soon-displaced birds may be attracted and will be safe from predators.

VDOT concluded that, “While construction of a new island will not be undertaken directly in association with the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel Expansion Project, DGIF is currently engaged with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the feasibility of constructing an island for the bird population, using dredged material, in the nearby area. The financing, permitting, and timing of any such effort is to be determined.”

What’s Happening Now

According to reports, crews have put down sand, set up decoys and installed a sound system to play bird calls and “colony chatter” on designated barge sites and on Fort Wool—an island fortification built in 1819 for coastal defense.

Although, the setup isn’t quite enough for the seabirds to migrate on their own: VDOT also began employing a pack of border collies to patrol the area around the clock since late February, which is scheduled to work throughout the summer when the migration season ceases.

Working in shifts and wearing protective eye gear, the dogs are currently patrolling on the bridge-tunnel complex’s south island. The area is slated to turn into the next construction staging area for the bridge-tunnel project.

“The birds just fly away and the dogs kind of run around like they’re chasing a tennis ball. They’re having a great time,” said Rob Cary, chief deputy commissioner while updating the Commonwealth Transportation Board on the state’s bird herding efforts.

Rebecca Gibson, the owner of North Carolina-based company Flyaway Geese is the owner of the collies. Her company specializes in keeping unwanted wildlife away from airports, golf courses and military bases, among other types of facilities.

“Birds are very pattern oriented,” Gibson said in an interview. “And all we do day in and day out is break patterns.” Her four-legged crew never calls in sick and never complains. “They’re never upset about going to work. They love what they do.”

The animal-friendly plan is an alternative to Gov. Northam’s language addition in the state’s budget, allowing for Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to grant an interim permit to relocate the nests and eggs of threatened birds through “all reasonable steps” by the VDOT and Hampton Roads Connector Partners.

Thus far, the Virginia Mercury reports that the relocation plan seems to be working, with more than 2,000 terns already nesting at Fort Wool. Officials add that they’ve also seen signs of a new rookery of snowy egrets as well.

“They’ve all responded very favorably to this habitat,” Cary said. “From what I understand from [the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries] not only are they nesting there, they’re seeing courtship behaviors. Which is a great thing.”


Tagged categories: Bridges; Bridges; Construction; Department of Transportation (DOT); Environmental Control; Environmental Protection; NA; North America; Ongoing projects; Program/Project Management; Project Management; Transportation; Tunnel

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