Besides cutting spending, Northam’s budget tackles a Hampton Roads seabird problem

The Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam’s 144 budget amendments aren’t just about cutting new spending as Virginia braces itself for at least $1 billion in revenue losses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

They are also, in one instance, about birds — specifically, gull-billed terns — and a massive expansion of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel that has conflicted with the nesting site of a roughly 25,000-strong colony of assorted avians. 

The proposed amendment, Number 97, is the latest step in Virginia’s efforts to provide protections for migratory birds while also ensuring construction on the almost $4 billion project can occur.

“This is all a precautionary type of statute that we’re putting in place,” said Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue. 

Emily Wade, assistant director of communications for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the interim permit solution was “the culmination of extensive collaboration between the secretaries of Natural Resources and Transportation.”

If adopted by the General Assembly once it reconvenes Wednesday, Northam’s amendment will allow the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to grant an interim permit to VDOT “to relocate the nest and eggs of any state listed threatened bird species from critical areas of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel Expansion Project’s South Island … which, if not relocated, would effectively require all substantial construction activities to cease.

The gull-billed tern, said Donohue, is the only bird likely to be affected by the amendment.

The new language would also require officials to make sure VDOT took “all reasonable steps” to ensure birds weren’t nesting on the south island and allow them to order the agency to compensate for adverse impacts to fish, wildlife and their habitats.

Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy, described the interim permit idea as “the best solution under the circumstances.”

“It’s a way to thread the needle,” he said. “But I actually don’t think it’s going to be needed.”

Since the 1980s, the 25,000-bird colony has been nesting on the south island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel complex. But when VDOT embarked on the expansion of the bridge-tunnel that connects Hampton with Norfolk, it paved over the south island’s six acres of traditional nesting grounds. 

This February, as the Virginian-Pilot has extensively reported, the Northam administration put out a plan to create new habitat for the birds, including an artificial island at Fort Wool, floating barges and, in the long term, perhaps a brand-new island built out of spoil dredged from the surrounding waters. 

In the meantime, as Wade reported, “the colonial migratory birds are beginning to arrive in the Hampton Roads area as expected.”

Since the south island was paved over, the big question was whether the birds would attempt to continue nesting on the site when they returned in the spring — particularly if they chose to nest in what Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky called “the critical construction area around the island entrance and the staging area for the tunnel boring machine.” 

Because threatened species have special protections under Virginia law, that could trigger a slowdown or even shutdown of construction, an outcome likely to be particularly unpalatable in the midst of an economic slowdown.

So far, said Wade, the homecomers “have not impeded the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel Expansion Project.”

Parr said that based on populations elsewhere, there’s a good chance that the returning birds will adapt to the Fort Wool and barge sites, but the interim permit could act as a “backstop” in case the nesting doesn’t go smoothly.

“Birds are somewhat predictable,” he said, “but they’re not always predictable.”