Monday, April 15, 2024

3 WB bridge replacements up for USDOT funds, committee forms to plan ahead

Salisbury Street Bridge Wrightsville Beach (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — A committee met for the first time this week to plan for ramifications of three upcoming bridge replacement projects to take place successively in Wrightsville Beach. The North Carolina Department of Transportation is applying for a federal grant to help cover the project’s $70 million estimated cost.

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

Wrightsville Beach’s South Banks Channel Bridge and two 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. They are slated to be replaced beginning in 2028, with each bridge anticipated to take two years to construct, meaning completion could be by 2034.

The Wrightsville Beach Three Bridge Replacement Committee met Monday to discuss preparations, including the impact it will have on emergency services, while also including traffic and economic impacts on businesses and residents. 

Chair Neal Andrew noted the committee’s role is not to decide specifics of the bridge construction, which is the position of the NCDOT.

“We’re here to try to come up with as much information as we can to help them plan,” Andrew said Monday. 

Mayor Pro Tem Hank Miller — one of the committee’s eight members — likened the group to the Olympic committee. He said, similar to preparing for the impact of the major sporting event taking place in Wrightsville Beach, their role is to consider all potential scenarios before the replacements. 

“If the Olympics are coming to Wrightsville Beach, what are we doing?” he asked. “Somebody asked me the other day, had we done an analysis on an active shooter. You know an active shooter at Wrightsville Beach today would be bad, but an active shooter with one bridge might even be different.”

(Wrightsville Beach did have an active shooter situation take place on Scotch Bonnet Lane in August last year, which led to a police chase down Eastwood Road to Market Street, where officers shot and killed the suspect.)

Miller described the goal of the committee to plan for extreme scenarios and on everyday impacts, to ensure no potential issue is overlooked. The committee will give recommendations to the town board of aldermen and communicate its findings with staff and residents.

The bridge replacements are anticipated to require right-of-way acquisitions — referring to properties NCDOT deems essential to its projects. The acquisition process is expected to begin in 2026 before bridge closures and construction will commence two years later. 

NCDOT communications officer Lauren Haviland told Port City Daily the agency is still identifying the exact impacts and potential properties included in right-of-way needs. The committee agreed to reach out to merchants to understand its anticipated effect on business, including any potential condemnations in the right-of-way process. 

In addition to $70 million already identified for the projects in NCDOT’s state bridge fund — set aside each budget cycle to cover bridges with the most critical needs — the agency is applying for grants through the USDOT’s Bridge Investment Program. The Wrightsville Beach bridges are in the USDOT grant’s “other than large” category because the replacements are expected to total under $100 million (there are also planning level projects and projects more than $100 million categories for the grant).

PCD asked Haviland for more details on the most recent cost estimate and the breakdown of the bridge’s funding sources, but she said NCDOT had nothing more to add at this time.

On Wednesday, the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization passed a resolution in support of the NCDOT’s application for federal grants to fund the replacements. The WMPO resolution notes the bridges “are in critical condition and will be at the end of their useful life in 10 years.”

In an August joint meeting with NCDOT and the Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen, division 3 engineer Chad Kimes, who will be retiring this year, said the agency was able to adjust the schedule of other bridge replacements, to bump up the timeline for the Wrightsville Beach projects. Haviland did not answer which projects shifted exactly, but said the WB bridges took priority “due to their condition”; however, she also maintained they are still safe.

Florida-based infrastructure consulting firm RS&H is leading planning for the projects; the firm’s $507,077 contract with NCDOT also includes subcontractors Falcon Engineering and Carolina Ecosystems.

Haviland told PCD the state transportation department usually does not perform traffic impact analyses for bridge replacements, but RS&H completed a report on necessary improvements to intersections of Causeway Street and Lumina Avenue and Waynick Boulevard.

The study’s comparison of all scenarios found a non-seasonal bridge closure would increase total delays by 19% to 27% during peak traffic hours compared to an estimate of 2028 traffic without bridge construction. Alternatively, a closure during peak summer traffic would heighten delays by 54% to 213%. 

The study noted each of the four detour alternatives would burden traffic, including the closure of both Salisbury Street bridges with the redirection of all traffic to Causeway Drive without infrastructure improvements. The other three alternatives entail closure of the Causeway Drive bridge with all traffic directed to Salisbury Street and different intersection improvements, such as the temporary widening of Salisbury Street to three lanes.

It stated two building options could decrease traffic congestion, both of which would occur while all bridges are open. The first is construction of a single-lane roundabout at Causeway Drive/Stoneway Street and Lumina Avenue/Waynick Boulevard, while all bridges are open. 

The second option would reduce the Causeway Drive bridge to a three-lane cross-section with two lanes entering Wrightsville Beach and one exiting, while restriping the turn lanes at Causeway Drive/Stoneway Street and Lumina Avenue/Waynick Boulevard.

At Monday’s WB bridge committee meeting, member Brian Eckel — co-founder of Cape Fear Commercial and Cape Fear Development — spoke in favor of hiring a contractor to perform a comprehensive traffic impact analysis. He argued it would be useful to develop a computer-generated model to anticipate traffic flow in various events, such as how one bridge being down would affect high volume dates during July 4th or the N.C. Flotilla, held during Thanksgiving weekend.

“We’re talking about emergency response,” Eckel said at the meeting. 

He argued a contractor’s analysis would provide necessary details for optimal response in the event of a person having a heart attack on the beach, for instance, as they may require a helicopter if there are severe traffic delays. 

Eckel told PCD on Thursday he hasn’t yet seen NCDOT’s traffic report for WB bridge replacements.

“I understand we are at least four years out and commend Wrightsville Beach leaders for getting ahead of this and thinking through all of the potential impacts, but I am eager to see the study,” he said.

The committee agreed to review NCDOT’s traffic studies on the project before deciding on potential contractors to fill in data gaps.

The three bridges are planned to be replaced one at a time to mitigate traffic concerns. The South Banks Channel Bridge is expected to be replaced last, as it is currently undergoing maintenance work estimated to add 10 years of life.

Maryland based Coastal Gunite Construction Co. began work to update the bridge’s girder and approach slab and replace bridge joints in November 2021. However, shipping delays for material and worse-than-expected damage have added more time to the rehabilitation project.

In May, NCDOT told PCD the additional work has also contributed $500,000 more to the firm’s $3.7 million contract, awarded in August 2021. On Thursday, Haviland told PCD that work on the bottom side of the bridge has finished, while handrail and joint repair will continue with night work through March; she said it is expected to complete within the next two months.

The committee also discussed potentially creating subcommittees for different sections of the town, in addition to ones for merchants and emergency response. The group decided to reach out to NCDOT and the county for input and look into creating a website for resident feedback in the interim period before its next meeting, April 8.

Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at

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