SURF CITY — If you frequent Topsail Island, or the Surf City area in general, you’ve probably noticed the construction going on south of the Surf City swing bridge. You may also have sat in traffic every hour, on the hour, awaiting the bridge to open and close for passing ships.
But the traffic situation will soon be changing, thanks to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, a new high-level, fixed span bridge is being constructed on N.C. 50/210 over the Intracoastal Waterway. NCDOT officials say it will be open for business starting in September 2019.
NCDOT Resident Engineer for the project, Trevor Carroll, says the project is already approximately 15 percent done. Started in September of 2016, he said: “It’s very fast paced construction. We do have some ‘thoughts’ about ways we can maybe finish sooner, but it’s really all about our contractor delivering the milestones that he can make.”
Aside from the traffic, is a new bridge really necessary?
According to Carroll, the answer is a definite yes.
“The old bridge coming to the end of its life cycle quite honestly,” he said. “The bridge is still safe, but it’s identified as a ‘structurally deficient bridge’ on our inventory systems.”
“We have spent lots of money repairing, replacing and rehabbing sections of the existing bridge, it’s really just at the end of its life cycle,” Carroll said.
In addition to money spent on repairing a more than 60-year-old bridge, Carroll said “the average daily traffic that goes across that bridge, you know, whenever that traffic flow is interrupted every hour, on the hour for a shipping vessel, it causes such back-ups on either side of the bridge. It just doesn’t serve the community the way a bridge across the waterway needs to.”
Upon completion, the bridge will have 65 ft. of clearance at high tide, leaving almost any vessel the space to cross underneath. The old swing bridge will be removed once the new bridge is ready to open.
The bridge begins just west of Atkinson Road, approximately 1,100 ft. south of the existing bridge on the mainland side. The bridge will span the Intracoastal Waterway, ending on the far side of “Onshore Surf Shop” on the Topsail side. Roundabouts will be constructed at both ends of the bridge, allowing continued access to business’s on both sides.
So what’s the cost?
In 2011, there were approximately 19 different plans for bridge replacements pitched to the DOT. According to Carroll, these ranged from an identical replacement, to something along the lines of the Isabel Holmes Bridge in Wilmington.
“Ultimately, the path we chose, this route, it was the least impact to the environment,” Carroll said. “It wasn’t the cheapest option but it was one of the cheaper ones, and it was the most well received by the folks on the island, and the folks on the mainland side.”
Carroll said that this route offered the least impact for homes and businesses as well, only needing to relocate a few locations.
“We did have some relocation’s, and we did have some total takes on some properties, but this was the fewest,” he said. “Really, and this is rare, but when all the cards are spread out, everyone liked this route.”
Initial engineer estimates placed the cost of the bridge at $58.8 million for construction. But when the NCDOT opened up bidding for the contract, it actually managed to lower the price $5.1 million.
The contract was ultimately awarded to Balfour Beatty Construction Inc., of Wilmington, for $53.7 million. Carroll said there were several other suitors for the project, two at cost and many well over.
Balfour Beatty recently achieved their first major milestone, having to do with environmental impact and a moratorium that exists to not disturb the bottom of the river. Many different species of fish come to North Carolina coastal waters to spawn in the warmer months, the moratorium is active between April 1 and Sept. 30 each year.
“So there’s basically no work from April 1 to Sept. 30 of any given year,” said Carroll. “When our contractor was awarded the project back on September 26 of last year, everyone understood that they had to go and begin work immediately. They needed to get every casing, every trestle pile vibrated into the ground before April 1.”
“We actually met that milestone, and actually met it sometime around March 28,” Carroll said. “It was pretty close but we were ahead of schedule.”
This lays the “formwork” for the bridge itself, allowing construction to move forward into the summer months, poring the actual foundation itself without disturbing wildlife.
“That casing is sort of like a cylinder sleeve if you will, that needs to be vibrated into the ground,” Carroll said. “Then the cranes that you see out there now are actually auguring out all of the mud, muck, rock and all that soil material from the bottom of the river to down 90 ft. below the river.”
Upon completion in 2019, the bridge will offer a 10-foot multi-use path on the north side of the bridge and a 7.5-foot bicycle lane in each direction.
According to the NCDOT Topsail Island Bridge Replacement site, the bridge will also offer a “39-foot roadway width carrying the bicycle and travel lanes, which allows for an alternate evacuation configuration for emergencies and hurricanes. Two lanes off the island, one lane onto the island.”
Carroll says the contractual date to have traffic on the bridge is slated for September, 2019.
In the meantime though, Carroll would like to caution people visiting the area to be mindful of their surroundings, and travel carefully.
If you’d like to get a good view of the construction, he suggests Soundside Park, just on the Topsail side of the current bridge, offers “really good views of the construction.”
For information on the project, visit ncdot.gov.