(Delmarva Now) -- A groundbreaking ceremony Monday on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel marked the official start of work on the $756 million Thimble Shoals parallel tunnel construction project.
Dozens of officials and dignitaries, as well as members of the public, attended the ceremony, held in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay on one of two manmade islands on the bridge-tunnel.
Some work actually started on the project about a month ago, according to Jeff Holland, Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel executive director.
On Oct. 1, the island where the ceremony was held will be closed to the public for about five years during construction.
Chesapeake Grill restaurant, where a reception was held following the groundbreaking, and the Virginia Originals gift shop will close forever at the end of the month to make way for the new, second tunnel.
"It's been a long, hard and expensive project to get to this point," said Frederick T. Stant III, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commission.
Retired Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel employees David Mitchell and Michael Flanagan started the ceremony with an a cappella rendition of the National Anthem.
Stant said the commission in May 2013 decided to accelerate the timetable to build the parallel tunnel from 2025 to 2017 because of favorable financial conditions in the construction industry.
That decision "was the easy part," he said, adding that the necessity of raising tolls to help pay for the project was the hard part.
Even with the toll increase put into effect in 2015, "We still remain the lowest price per mile facility on the East Coast," Stant said.
Holland thanked current and past commissioners for their service, and especially thanked Lucius Kellam.
"This facility would not be here were it not for his family," Holland said.
Stant also praised Kellam, saying, "It was his vision that built this facility."
The crossing in 1987 was officially renamed the Lucius J. Kellam Jr. Bridge-Tunnel after the civic leader who worked so long for its development.
"It's just wonderful, exciting news," said Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam of the official start of the tunnel project.
He noted that, as an Eastern Shore of VIrginia native, he likely has crossed the span thousands of times in his lifetime.
Northam said Holland has provided "tremendous leadership to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel."
He recognized Sen. Lynwood Lewis, Delegate Rob Bloxom and Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, saying, "I want to remind all of us, we do things here the Virginia way — that means we put the partisanship aside; we come to the table. We don't always agree, but at the end of the day, we do what's in the best interest of Virginia."
"I look forward to coming back in 2022 ... and being one of the first people to finally drive through the new tunnel expansion," Northam said.
Layne, who formerly served as chairman of the bridge-tunnel commission, praised Holland — who he called "the best executive director of any transportation asset I've ever dealt with" — and also the unique business model of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
"This commission is where business and transportation come together. It is run like a business," he said.
"Here's where I learned the phrase I say all the time — that limited resources have consequences. And that's what I learned here — that business practices could be used successfully to transform transportation," Layne said, adding, "In fact, every major reform that Gov. McAuliffe and Lt. Gov. Northam have allowed us to do, really originated from here."
Holland said the groundbreaking event is the first of four ceremonies planned for the project.
The next will be a launching ceremony about one year from now for the boring machine that will be used in the tunnel construction.
Third will be a receiving ceremony in mid- to late-2020 when construction reaches the other end of the tunnel, Holland said.
Finally, a ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held, likely in mid- to late-2022, to mark the opening of the parallel tunnel to traffic.
Commemorative tiles will be handed out to attendees at each ceremony — the first tiles were given out Monday. The 3-inch square tile features an aerial photograph of the Thimble Shoal Tunnel with ships passing through, the familiar seagull logo and the motto, "Tunneling Forward."