By: Jon Cawley; DailyPress.com
Hampton Roads’ notoriously unpredictable traffic patterns are expected to be significantly more predictable this weekend — but not necessarily in a good way.
Anyone driving to or around downtown Norfolk and perhaps the Fort Monroe area of Hampton, should be prepared for significant congestion related to the convergence of Norfolk Harborfest and OpSail 2012 Virginia — a once-a-decade occurrence. Same goes for boaters plying the waterways of the Chesapeake Bay.
Festivities begin in earnest Friday morning with a parade of tall-masted sailing ships from around the world and conclude Tuesday morning as the maritime convoy departs. In between, a slew of waterfront activities are expected to attract multitudes of attendees from across the region and further afar.
“We anticipate heavy congestion,” said Nora Chivers, a Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
Motorists will be able to access Waterside Drive from Interstate 264, but the road will be blocked from Atlantic Avenue to St. Paul’s Avenue to accommodate festival goers.
Chivers recommends drivers exit I-264 west at City Hall Avenue (Exit 10) or from I-264 east and Interstate 464 north at St. Paul’s Avenue (Exit 9) to access downtown Norfolk.
“Drivers should anticipate some backups at exits nine and 10 because people will be trying to find parking,” Chivers said. “It’s going to backup onto the interstate as people are trying to get through.”
VDOT is not anticipating lengthy delays at theHampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. However, Chivers said the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel could be a choke point as motorists pursue an alternate route.
Complimentary “Norfolk Free Way” buses will be available during the events to shuttle festival attendees to and from more than 20 area hotels and businesses, including a depot at Harbor Park.
Hampton Roads Transit will step up its bus, ferry and light rail services with additional vehicles and shorter intervals between buses.
“From the light rail perspective, we’re putting everything out there,” Jim Price, HRT’s chief transit officer, recently told the transit agency’s governing board.
Price said buses will be stationed at the Newtown Road light rail station, “in case lines get long.”
In addition, three Elizabeth River ferries will be run between Norfolk and Portsmouth during the events and a fourth will be added to Saturday’s service. Ten bus coaches are scheduled to be on hand Saturday to help attendees swiftly get out of the downtown area after the fireworks show.
On the water
Motorists aren’t the only ones who will need to exhibit patience and consideration. Boaters will faceU.S. Coast Guardrestrictions.
“Safety and security zones” have been established that will close portions of the Chesapeake Bay, Thimble Shoals Channel, James River and the Elizabeth River’s western and southern branches during the parade and fireworks display, according to the Coast Guard.
Those areas include no-wake zones within 500 yards and no-entry zones within 100 yards, of participating U.S. naval vessels and tall ships. Boaters must maintain slow speeds within 500 yards of a U.S. Naval vessel greater than 100 feet in length.
Officials are anticipating possible congestion as motorists flock Friday to tall ship viewing areas at Fort Monroe and an un-related minister’s conference taking place at Hampton University. The Hampton Visitors and Convention Bureau is recommending Interstate 64 drivers heading toward Fort Monroe take Exit 263-B (Mercury Boulevard) or Exit 268 (Mallory Street).
Hampton Police Cpl. Jason Price said the only related road closure will be on Fort Monroe’s Fenwick Road between Ingalls Road and the Wherry housing development. Barriers will be in place.
“We don’t know what to expect,” Price said, of the potential for congestion. “But we’re prepared for the most amount of people that can come.”