Investors & Figg propose to build new Elizabeth River toll bridge in Norfolk VA

December 29, 2008

A bridge-builder and private investors are promising to do what City officials in Chesapeake Virginia thought was impossible - replace a decrepit 80 year old draw bridge with a modern high level structure at no cost to taxpayers. And they say they can get the new bridge open within 18 months. The old Jordan Bridge, a multi-truss iron span close by the water of the Elizabeth River with a high lift span for shipping was permanently closed to vehicular traffic the lift span in the 'up' position November 8, after progressively more restrictive weight limits were imposed in recent years to avert a collapse of the heavily rusted ironwork.

The investors Figg Bridge well-known bridge builders, and Britton Hill Partners LLC (BHP) a private investment company are asking to be granted title to the old bridge and the land it stands on in return for an undertaking to replace it with a modern high level bridge. This is a replay of the way the original bridge was built in the mid-1920s and the way most major bridges were built in the US in 19th century - by investors who bought land and owned the assets outright and operated them as a transportation business.

Linda Figg president of Figg Bridge Developers and Scott Dorsey managing director of Britton Hill Partners (BHP) have co-signed a letter dated Dec 22 to the City of Chesapeake, which was made public at a special meeting of the city council just before Christmas. The group is advised by Philip Shucet, independent consultant, formerly Virginia state transportation commissioner, and later with Macquarie in New York.

City of Chesapeake mayor Alan Krasnoff has welcomed the investor offer saying it is a "wonderful Christmas present" to the people of the region who with the closure of the old lift bridge have been facing increasingly circuitous journeys and greater congestion on parallel routes.

The Jordan Bridge connects southern Norfolk with southern Plymouth over an estuarial section of the Elizabeth River that is 600m (2000ft) wide in an industrial and port area. Norfolk Naval Ship Yards employing some 15,000 people are located immediately on the west side of the bridge. The river forms part of the Intra Coastal Waterway and the old bridge was typically raised 20 to 30 times per day (10,000 lifts/year) for about 22,000 vessel passages a year (an average 60/day) seriously limiting its availability to car traffic. The allowed weight on the bridge was progressively reduced and for the last 12 years was posted at 2.7t (6000pds, 3 short tons). So worried was the City about the bridge collapsing from an overweight vehicle after receiving the last engineering report that from the early summer they posted an inspector each end of the bridge to turn back overweight vehicles.

Under their proposal to the City the investors would take full responsibility for financing, building and operating the new bridge, including purchase of some extra right of way needed and would remove the existing abandoned bridge. As joint owners and operators of the new bridge they would have the right to the tolls. They would be committed to expanding the capacity of the bridge in line with demand.

The bridge spans an estuarial section of the Elizabeth River with a width of 600m (2000ft). The existing bridge is a mere 4m to 5m (15ft) above the water. The proposed new private bridge would have a center span of 111m (365ft) and a overhead clearance of 44.2m (145ft) and 69m (225ft) between a system of channel fenders to protect the main span piers.

With approaches the New Jordan Bridge will need to be about 1525m (5,000ft) in length overall to provide 44.2m (145ft) of overhead clearance with approach grades of no more than 5%.

About eleven spans of the bridge will be over water and with typical approach spans of 46m (150ft) there will another 20 spans of approach deck over land.

"At or below $100m project cost"

The proposers tell us they estimate the project cost of the initial single roadway bridge as being "at or below $100m." They say their detailed estimate is confidential at this point and final costs would be determined jointly with the design-build team.

Cost of the 2-lane bridge could be about $80m to $90m. There would also be some land acquisition costs and demolition costs making a project cost that looks like $90m to $100m.

Oddly, City officials talked earlier in the year of a replacement bridge costing $200m+.

COMPARISON COSTING: The most similar segmental box girder bridge built in recent years is the Victory Bridge carrying New Jersey state route 35 (NJ35) over the Raritan River a bit east of the Garden State Parkway's Driscoll Bridge and the US9 bridges. Like the New Jordan Bridge the New Victory Bridge NJ has a long main shipping channel span - a necessary but expensive feature.

NJDOT paid $109m for the New Victory Bridge using a Figg design in 2003.

The New Victory Bridge has 4 travel lanes in two structures over 1210m (3970ft) so was $22.5m/lane-km. At just over 3 lane-miles it is $36.2m/lane-mile.

New Jordan Bridge is 1525m (0.95 miles) and with two lanes is 3.05 lane-km (1.89 lane-miles). At the cost per lane-km of NJDOT's Victory Bridge the New Jordan Bridge would cost $68.6m but add 20% for extra overhead and setup costs of the smaller bridge and you get $82.4m.

Another way of costing the New Jordan Bridge would be deck area.

New Victory Bridge has twin decks of 13.1m (43ft) width. Deck area is 31,728m2 (341k ft2) which at $109m total cost comes to $344/m2 or $32/ft2.

New Jordan at 2 lanes is 1525m x 14.6m or 22.3k m2 (5000x48ft = 240k ft2) which at $109m total cost comes to about $76.7m x 1.2 ratio for diseconomy of scale and that puts construction cost at $92m.  On top of that are costs of land acquisition and removal of the old bridge.

(NOTE: In our first posting we estimated lower costs for the New Jordan based on the Pennsylvania Turnpike's New Susquehennna River Bridge, a Figg design which cost around $120m. But the Susquehanna River Bridge has no long shipping channel span like the New Victory and the proposed New Jordan Bridge, so it was a poor comparison. REVISION 2008-12-30 21:30)

Not dependent on credit markets

Scott Dorey of the investor group Britton Hill Partners (BHP) tells us the proposal is to initially build the single roadway structure of two travel lanes, but he thinks it is likely to require additional investment to expand to a two roadway structure before very long.

The Jordan Bridge is one of five corridors providing east-west connectivity across the central and southern portions of the Norfolk/Hampton Roads metro area which are divided by the north-south Elizabeth River.

These are from north to south showing distance between :

- Midtown Tunnel, open 1952, US58,  2 lanes, detolled, 41k/wkdy,LOS-F, likely to be tolled again and widened to 4 lanes

3.4km (2.1 miles)

- Downtown Tunnel, open 1952, doubled 1987, I-264, 4 lanes expressway detolled, 101k/wkdy, LOS-F, likely to be tolled again

2.8km (1.7 miles)

- Jordan Bridge, open 1928, VA337 spur off I-464,  2 lanes signalized, 7.2k/wkdy. LOS-C, tolled, pre-closure

3.7km (2.3 miles)

- Gilmerton Bridge, open 1938, S Military Hwy US13/460 4 lanes, signalized arterial, tax supported, 36k/wkdy, LOS-E

1.9km (1.2 miles)

- I-64 bridge, open 1972, 4 lanes expressway, tax supported, 76k/wkdy, LOS-F, planned widening to 6 lanes, taxes now but to be tolled

Average weekday traffic at the five crossings is about 260k. An "Elizabeth River Crossings Study" by the Hampton Roads Metro Plan Organization of the five crossings June 2008 was based on increasing population 2007-2030 forecast at 177k east and 106k west of the River and employment 102k more east and 53k greater west of the river. It indicated an increase of 79k or 30% in traffic needed to be catered for across the whole of the Elizabeth River.

LOS-F now

Traffic is LOS-F currently in peak-hours at all the expressway standard facilities. On those the lanes are due to be increased from 10 to 14 with the Midtown Tunnel being doubled from 2 tax lanes to 4 tolled, and the I-64 belt route going from 4 to 6 lanes, still tax supported. The Downtown Tunnel I -264 will be re-tolled as part of the re-tolling and doubling of the Midtown Tunnel. I-64 which has never been tolled is due to be tolled under the MPO plan for generating road use fees to support capital improvements on the expressway network.

Under City control the old Jordan Bridge at the end carried only 7,200 cars/weekday average at an historic 75c toll to generate a mere $1.6m/year in revenue of which $0.9m went bridge employees salaries and benefits and $0.35m for routine operations costs connected with the lift machinery, leaving quite insufficient to support repair and renovation, let alone provision for depreciation or return on capital. The old Jordan Bridge was the only toll facility known in Virginia without an electronic toll option.

A lot of potential traffic on the Jordan Bridge was driven away by

(1) the delays of the many lifts for shipping each day - 20 to 30 per day


(2) the single cash toll collection lane each direction. (Normally one travel lanes is serviced by two to three cash collection lanes.)

(3) the 6000 pound (2.7t) weight limit

The Elizabeth River Crossings Study puts Jordan bridge demand at 19k/day with the new high level 2-lane bridge. (see table at bottom of this report)

Possible 4 lane expressway loop

Another proposal called Alternative A has the Jordan Bridge part of a 7.1km (4.4 mile) loop extending Martin Luther Kind Freeway from the port area south to I-264 and across, then looping eastward to the Jordan Bridge as a 4-lane expressway with interchanges at I-264 and three surface arterials. This is forecast to have a potential 56k veh/day as a tax-supported facility by 2030, perhaps 40k with tolls?

The Crossings report seems to favor this plan saying it does the most to relieve congestion on the I-264 Downtown Tunnel, the most stressed of the crossings.  Widening the I-264 and improving the capacity of the I-264/I-464 interchange is liable to be hugely more expensive and difficult than the MLK-Jordan Bridge Loop.

The potential of the Jordan Bridge as part of the area's expressway network is likely part of its attraction to investors. At a $2 toll and 40k veh/day it makes $24 to $30m/year. Variable congestion tolls might increase that further.

Can be straight equity to avoid credit market meltdown

Britton Hill Partners tell us the group is not impacted by the current credit markets dislocation. BHP has pension and endoment funds seeking projects of this size and with a quicker turnaround time than typical concessions.

Under the partnership with a contractor like Figg the construction company would normally take some equity in return for some of the work done. Figg would be in charge of toll collection, bridge operations and maintenance.

Dorey says they'll work out the details of financing if the City wants to proceed.

He says the proposal represents a "clean and simple deal" to the City. He argues ownership of the bridge will simplify the project as opposed to a toll concession. There are similar privately owned toll bridges in Detroit (Ambassador Bridge), In Alabama the bridges in Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, and Foley Beach, Dingmans bridge PA-NJ. Also the Camino Columbia Toll Road in Laredo Texas (which went broke and was taken over by TxDOT).

The team at BHP is comprised of former Wall Street investment bankers, including former Lehman Brothers employees and senior public officials with principal investment and infrastructure experience. BHP has offices in Miami and New York. Scott Dorey was a long term investment banker at Lehman Brothers and corporate lawyer at Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison and has worked internationally.

The City of Chesapeake has been given a six page proposal on Figg letterhead and signed by Linda Figg, president and Scott Dorey of BHP, and it has a 13-page powerpoint style presentation by Figg that they make available.

The presentation shows the new bridge as 14.6m (48ft) of deck width providing two vehicle travel lanes of 3.66m (12ft), 'multiuse shoulders' each side of 2.44m (8ft) and a barriered off 2.44m (8ft)  lane for pedestrians. The old bridge had 2 lanes, no shoulders and a 1.2m (4ft) unprotected pedestrian sidewalk. The presentation also shows a twin bridge alongside the initial 2-lane bridge when traffic volumes require that.

Says the Figg/BHP letter: "When traffic demands warrant the need for additional lanes of capacity, based on generally accepted industry practices, BHP and FIGG will add the capacity to improve the corridor and handle the growing traffic. Such improvements shall include the exclusive right to construct an additional parallel bridge to increase capacity from two lanes to any number of additional lanes as determined by generally accepted industry practices..."

The investors would offer free passage to emergency vehicles and suspend tolls for all during hurricane evacuations. 

The City would have naming rights over the new bridge.

The proposal would be something of a return to the bridge's historical roots. It was built as a private toll bridge  by two local businessmen in the 1920s named Jordan and operated as a business for about half its life. It was then managed by a not-for-profit and finally turned over to the City of Chesapeake which has operated it under an enterprise fund.

The new high level toll bridge would be open by July 4 2010, Figg and Dorey write. 

Tolls are "likely to be $2" each direction the proposal says, normally increased according to the CPI every 5 years.

The offer they make is open until Jan 31.


Toll revenues have been a mere $1.6m/year - most consumed in the operations and maintenance costs.

The City looked at financing a replacement bridge but couldn't see it as a paying proposition, or as being high enough in its priorities for tax-based funding.

The lift bridge originally known as the Norfolk-Plymouth Bridge was built in the mid-1920s by local lumber merchants Carl M Jordan and his brother Wallace. It was designed by Harrington Howard & Ash, specialists in moveable bridges early in the 20th century who evolved into Howard Needles Tammen & Bergendorf, now known by the initials HNTB.

The bridge while owned in total by the City of Chesapeake is located on City of Chesapeake territory on the eastern side of the river and within the City of Portsmouth on the western side. Portsmouth likely has to support any deal over the bridge since it has jurisdiction over western connecting streets.

The old bridge has a very limited pair of toll booths set against one another in the center of two directions of traffic under a canopy.

For 16 years from the opening in 1928 it was a private commercial operation.  In 1944 a non-profit South Norfolk Bridge Corporation was formed, still with Carl Jordan as general manager. In 1977 the non-profit commission turned title to the bridge and its land over to the City of Chesapeake - seeing it perhaps as more liability to be maintained than asset for its small revenue stream.

Weight restrictions (expressed in short tons of 2000pds 0.91t) reflect increasing concern about the danger of it collapsing: 1981 18 tons, 1987 15 tons, 1991 4 tons, 1996 3 tons, 2008 officer enforcement of 3 tons.

An engineer's inspection in April 2008 found ten critical items needing repair costing many millions of dollars or the bridge should be closed to vehicular traffic.

City runs successful toll expressway

The City of Chesapeake runs a successful tollroad - the Chesapeake Expressway VA168 in the southern part of the county. The Chesapeake Expressway tollroad 26km (16 miles) long  links I-64 to North Carolina's Outer Banks.

City of Chesapeake's materials on the old Jordan Bridge:

Proposal to City of Chesapeake (6 pages) from Figg, BHP:

COMMENTS: this looks like a good deal for the City but they have to decide if they can do better. They could open the project up to competing proposals as is usually done with larger projects than this. The downside would be delays - a longer time without a Jordan Bridge. And at the end of it, they might not get a better offer.

The details of the proposal could be improved.

For example the approach spans should have a climbing lane. Many trucks will crawl up the 5% grades frustrating car drivers caught behind them. There's room within the 12.2m (40ft) vehicular deck for 2 lanes in the up direction and a single lane down by sacrificing the continuous breakdown shoulders each side. That would be 3.6m, 3.3m and 3.7m  (11.8ft, 10.8ft up, 12ft down) leaving 1.6m (5.2ft) for buffer zone and offsets. Trucks would be kept to the righthand up lane.

The top of the bridge at the central span could be just a single lane each direction with breakdown shoulders but the long approaches should be two lanes up, one lane down.

Also the proposal needs to be designed with the possibility of easily adding the elevated expressway arcing around to I-264 and the MLK Freeway by offsetting the far western approach.

TOLLROADSnews 2008-12-29 COMMENTS ADDED 2008-12-30 09:45  COMPARISON of cost with New Victory substituted 2008-12-30 21:30

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