Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Tragedy, nostalgia, and hope: Here’s everything that’s going on with the Topsail Island bridge

As the new $53 million Surf City bridge targets pre-Christmas completion, prior plans to refurbish the iconic swing bridge have been sadly upended after the potential renovator's death.

SURF CITY – As Topsail Island’s new 65-foot-high, $53 million bridge nears a targeted completion before Christmas, well ahead of the original North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) schedule, contractor Balfour Beatty Construction is expected to recycle and scrap the iconic Surf City swing bridge.

Balfour Beatty regional operations manager Jay Boyd, who has led the construction of 57 bridges in North Carolina since 1994 including the 5-mile Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge spanning the Croatan Sound – the state’s longest bridge – said Thursday the decision was a matter of feasibility. Simply put, there was no one in the market for the swing bridge in its entirety, especially one of its size.

That wasn’t always the case. When Boyd’s close friend Paul Waff, owner of Waff Contracting, died of a stroke while visiting the Outer Banks in April, he took with him plans to repurpose the old bridge. 

“We were coming up with a plan,” Boyd said. “And then I got a pretty horrific call that he had passed away.”

According to NCDOT resident engineer Trevor Carroll, who has worked closely with Boyd on the project, Waff Contracting had specialized in buying old bridges, rehabbing them and selling them to golf courses or smaller communities that could use such a bridge in a much lighter capacity — no dump trucks and heavy traffic, for instance. 

“At one time, Balfour Beatty was talking about selling directly to (Waff Contracting), and it would’ve been refurbished and re-used, but that was sort of a two-man operation for that company, and (Waff) had a special niche. When he passed … that avenue is really off the table now,” Carroll said.

Boyd said that Waff was going to add the Surf City swing bridge to his collection of two other bridges, each sold to him by Boyd himself, that are now sitting in his hometown of Edenton.

“He actually owned two of ‘em, to tell you the truth,” said Boyd, smiling at the memory. “One of ‘em was the Chowan River Bridge, and that was back in the late 90s, and he has that bridge sittin’ in Edenton. And he has the (old Trent River Bridge) from New Burn sittin’ in Edenton too.”

Waff’s long-term plan was to refurbish the bridges into a restaurant and storefront pier, and the Surf City bridge may have been a part of that plan, Boyd said.

“That was his vision. Unfortunately he didn’t get to live long enough to see his vision completed,” Boyd said. “Once (Waff died), there really was nobody else who was in the market, who was really interested in buying the structure in its entirety.”

Carroll said that all existing structures fall to the contractor to dispose of in a way they see fit, as long as they meet certain NCDOT requirements and environmental guidelines. Rehabilitation for use on any other NCDOT facility was not an option after an evaluation of the bridge’s life span.

“If it makes engineering and economical sense, from a user’s perspective, we will do a rehab,” said Carroll. “The structure that’s there now – it does not warrant any rehab because we couldn’t use it on any other NCDOT facility. That’s part of the contractor’s thinking as well.”

Boyd said the plan now is to ensure the bridge is at least reused piecemeal.

Right now our intentions are to recycle the entire structure,” Boyd said, “Everything from the concrete to the steel, even the existing fender system will come out in its entirety … to be frank, it’s going to be cut up and recycled for scrap steel.”

These plans call for the concrete to be trucked to a different Balfour Beatty job location, crushed and used for an existing project; the creosote timber will be chipped up and sold as fuel to the Southport power plant; and the salt-treated timber on the existing fender will be sold for private use.

Balfour Beatty Operations Manager Jay Boyd, at the company's east coast headquarters in Wilmington, said that plans to refurbish the Surf City's old swing bridge were upended after the potential buyer’s death, and is now set to be recycled and scrapped. (Port City Daily photo | Mark Darrough)
Balfour Beatty Operations Manager Jay Boyd, at the company’s east coast headquarters in Wilmington, said that plans to refurbish the Surf City’s old swing bridge were upended after the potential buyer’s death, and is now set to be recycled and scrapped. (Port City Daily photo | Mark Darrough)

Local nostalgia for old bridge meets excitement for the new

Photographs and paintings of the swing bridge hang from restaurants, coffee shops and realty businesses across Surf City’s island and mainland, reflecting a strong local attachment to a bridge that has been around since 1955.

Cody Leutgens, owner of Shaka Tacos and Surf City Surf School, grew up on Topsail Island and feels a deep connection to the swing bridge, but he believes the new NCDOT bridge will improve commerce and the overall economy for the Topsail area.

“It will also make people generally more positive and happy,” Leutgens said, “because no one likes waiting in traffic for one or two hours to go to the beach,” referencing the bottleneck created by the current bridge opening hourly for passing ships.

Once people finally reach the island, he said, they are less likely to spend time shopping or eating at restaurants because they are eager to get to the beach.

While Leutgens had heard rumors of the bridge being moved to Soundside Park to serve as a boat dock or fishing area, it seems now those plans will succumb to the more practical move of recycling the famous bridge. While he understands the contractors’ financial and time constraints, he also expressed hope that the old bridge could still be memorialized in some fashion.

“There are people like myself who have been going over that bridge for twenty-plus years , for others even longer, and there’s a nostalgic feeling for the sounds and the smells and the colors of the bridge – that ‘ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump’ that says, ‘Okay, we’re here.’ I mean, I have the damn thing tattooed on my arm,” Leutgens said.

He also claims to have old lures still stuck somewhere on the bridge from his days fishing beneath it as a kid, and that local musicians have written songs of the bridge and have displayed it on the covers of their albums.

The bridge’s iconic value reaches well beyond the residents of Surf City, Leutgens continued.

“For people who have been coming here, or people who live here or people who used to live here, that swing bridge definitely represents Surf City and Topsail Island. It represents family vacations and the ocean and the waterway – all these natural representations of the area (that are) encapsulated in that bridge.”

Cody Leutgens, local resident and business owner in Surf City, says that while the new bridge will improve commerce in the Topsail area, he hopes the old swing bridge will be memorialized in some fashion. (Port City Daily photo | Mark Darrough)
Cody Leutgens, local resident and business owner in Surf City, said that while the new bridge will improve commerce in the Topsail area, he hopes the old swing bridge will be memorialized in some fashion. (Port City Daily photo | Mark Darrough)

The plan going forward

As Balfour Beatty rumbles toward a December opening of the new bridge, Boyd expressed pride in his company, his subcontractors, and the NCDOT for pushing the project forward well ahead of the original contract’s deadline of September 20, 2019.

Under an incentive program with the NCDOT that awards $10,000 per day ahead of that date, Balfour Beatty would earn an additional $2.7 million if all goes to plan.

“Our goal is to open the bridge to traffic by the end of the year, hopefully before Christmas. We’re looking at somewhere around 270 (incentive) days,” Boyd said. “That’s a pretty impressive feat to get a bridge of that size built that quick.”

The push to open early has come with a significant increase in costs and resources, according to Boyd.

“We put more folks to work, we double shifted, we worked a lot of overtime, a lot of nights, and actually had to increase some of our equipment to handle some of the additional resources,” Boyd said. “There’s been quite a bit of an expense to meet that date.”

“They’ve been working their (butts) off, day and night, even weekends,” said Marrissa Johnson, who just moved into a second floor apartment overlooking the bridge’s east side.

“We’re laying sewer today (Thursday),” said Cole Kelly, pipe foreman for subcontractor 274 Construction. “It’s going pretty decent – we laid about 200 feet of sewer in about a week or two. We’ll be done with the sewer in a week or so.”

"We’ll be done with the sewer in a week or so," said Cole Kelly (pictured here), pipe foreman for subcontractor 274 Construction.
“We’ll be done with the sewer in a week or so,” Cole Kelly (pictured here), pipe foreman for subcontractor 274 Construction, said.

As for removal of the old swing bridge, Balfour Beatty faces an in-water work moratorium – a contractual requirement that prohibits any work in the Intracoastal Waterway during the span of April 1st to September 30th due to the spawning of local fish populations.

If they cannot remove the bridge before April – which is debatable now, according to Boyd – removal would have to wait until October 1st of 2019.

Pender County tourism director Tammy Proctor believes the new bridge will significantly help with Surf City’s traffic flow, with no stops and interruptions that occurred so frequently with the swing bridge.

“Belfour can do what they want with it; they can scrap it or sell it. We would love to see it move to a community and have it stationary. But that’s their property, it’s part of the contract (with the NCDOT). The locals understand – even though it’s iconic and they love it – it sure causes a lot of delays in traffic,” Proctor said.

For Leutgens, as much as he wants to see the old bridge stick around in some capacity, he is looking forward to the new bridge’s positive impact on his own Topsail Island businesses.

“And,” he said, “it’s a hell of view, from the top.”

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