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Saturday, May 18, 2024

NCDOT funds $70M for 3 Wrightsville Beach bridge replacements starting 2028

While the South Banks Channel Bridge in Wrightsville Beach is currently under repair, it is slated for full replacement by NCDOT in less than a decade. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — Three bridges, including one currently undergoing maintenance, in a coastal New Hanover County town will be replaced beginning in 2028.

READ MORE: Delays and additional repairs mean S. Banks Channel Bridge won’t reopen until fall

Wrightsville Beach’s South Banks Channel Bridge and Salisbury Street bridges — all built in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s — are nearing the end of their usable life expectancy, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

“We cannot maintain them any longer,” NCDOT Division 3 engineer Chad Kimes told a room of roughly 25 people Monday for a workshop held at Wrightsville Beach Town Hall.

Though Kimes said finding the funds is typically the hardest part for state transportation projects, the agency has identified at least $70 million needed to replace the South Banks Channel Bridge on Causeway Drive and two bridges on Salisbury Street.

The money was identified in NCDOT’s state bridge fund set aside each budget cycle. It covers bridges with the “most critical needs statewide,” NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland said Monday. It doesn’t include high-value bridges, like the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, which is being considered again in the 10-year State Transportation Improvement Program.

“The department would not be able to have money for any other projects for several years [if used for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, for example],” she said.

For 2023, NCDOT allocated $272 million in the bridge fund for replacements, $68 million for preservation and $36 million for maintenance.

Kimes said Monday at a joint public meeting with Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen that NCDOT was able to alter the schedule of other bridge replacements to move up the timeline on Wrightsville Beach’s.

Monday’s workshop was meant to be a starting point to get local feedback on the proposed designs, which are still in preliminary stages.

“We know the island is constrained,” said Charles Cox with RS&H, the Jacksonville, Florida, design firm leading engineering and planning for the bridge replacements.

However, he also said traffic will likely not improve with the new bridges, but it also won’t get any worse.

Though it could, considering other nearby construction projects are planned for the same time period: 2026 to 2032.

When the bridge closures begin in 2028, major construction to build an overpass at Eastwood Road and Military Cutoff will be underway, further exacerbating future traffic concerns less than a mile from the Heide Trask drawbridge to get on the island. 

The Eastwood and Military Cutoff interchange improvement is slated to begin in 2026 and take about three years.

“That’s what we’re thinking about, for the town, a six- to eight-year period of time in which revenues, regardless, are going to be impacted,” Sue Bulluck with the Wrightsville Beach Chamber of Commerce noted.

Monday’s meeting had community members and town personnel in attendance to offer feedback.

“That’s going to impact real estate values, businesses, all of those things,” Bulluck said. “It’s all for the betterment long term but the planning for this has to include what the town does about lost revenue from parking, valuation and business.”

She said for the local businesses on the island the more information that can be shared as early as possible, the better for future planning.

“That will mean the survival or not of those businesses on the island,” Bulluck said.

To mitigate traffic concerns, the three bridges will be replaced one at a time, with the South Banks Channel Bridge likely done last since it’s currently undergoing rehab work.

The bridge’s $3.7-million preservation project contract was awarded in August 2021 to Coastal Gunite Construction Co. out of Maryland. Construction began in November 2021 to update the girder and approach slab and replace bridge joints on the structure; however, once crews started, they realized the damage from the saltwater atmosphere was worse than expected, according to NCDOT.

The rehab stalled in spring 2022 when materials needed were delayed by shipping; work started up again in August 2022 and is intended to wrap by this fall.

Monday, NCDOT Division 3 engineer Chad Kimes told the audience the repairs should add roughly 10 more years of life to the bridge.

During ongoing rehab, the South Banks Channel Bridge has been reduced from four lanes to three — two entering the island and one lane for leaving.

Kimes told PCD after the meeting, the design with only three lanes was a “test run” for a full-time pattern. When the bridge is redone, to retain its current footprint and additional pedestrian access, it will likely be designed with only three lanes.

The reason for removing the fourth lane is to accommodate a multi-use path on the structure, while also minimizing the amount of property NCDOT would have to take to do so.

“What we’re realizing is that fourth lane doesn’t really serve a purpose,” Kimes explained. “It’s more important to get the pedestrians across safely.”

Wrightsville Beach mayor pro tem Hank Miller said what the aldermen are hearing from the public is that the lane reduction has gone well, so far.

“Safety is first,” he said. “We got bikes, walking, cars … parking; that all needs to fit there. And if all need to fit there, we gotta do what’s best for everybody.”

Adjacent to the South Banks Channel Bridge are the Harbor Inn hotel and a $10-million house across the street, both of which would be expensive right-of-way purchases for the state if it needed the extra land.

“It could happen, but right now we’re trying to plan where they remain,” Kimes said.

The work will be in conjunction with the town’s plans to incorporate 7-foot bicycle lanes on both sides of Causeway Drive with an NCDOT grant received last fall.

The two bridges to be replaced along Salisbury Street are proposed at this time to have two 12-foot vehicular lanes, 6-foot bike lanes and a 12-foot multi-use path. The bridges don’t currently have multi-use paths, but the total width should be about the same as it is now.

The South Channel Banks Bridge is being designed to accommodate 6-foot bike lanes, 11-foot vehicular lanes and 10-foot multi-use paths.

Due to tighter right-of-way constraints on that bridge — which connects Harbor Island with Wrightsville Beach’s commercial hub and the 4-mile beach strand — the multi-use path will be smaller than the Salisbury Street bridges.

For all three rebuilds, NCDOT is planning to utilize more durable material, such as carbon fiber, to ensure the new builds have a 100-year lifespan.

RS&H’s Sean Kortovich said Monday the bridges will likely be built higher in elevation from the water than they are currently to account for sea-level rise.

“We can’t lower it,” he said. “So it has to stay at what it is now, or the preference would be to raise it up.”

Alderman Jeff Degroote inquired about water and sewer along the bridges, as connections are currently present.

Cox said utilities, emergency access, and boat traffic will need to be taken into consideration for design planning but it’s still early.

“We’re in the info-gathering stage,” he said. “We’re trying to throw out some initial options and see what those options are going to do, both positive and negative.”

RS&H is also looking for public feedback on possible traffic detours when each bridge has to be temporarily closed for replacement.

NCDOT will host a public community meeting Sept. 26 in Wrightsville Beach for further information and feedback. A time and location have not yet been announced.

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