By Joy Crist, Island Free Press
Resident project engineer Pablo Hernandez and a team of North Carolina Department of Transportation representatives answered questions and provided updates on the ongoing Rodanthe Jug Handle Bridge construction in an at-times heated community meeting with residents and property owners from the Tri-villages.
The meeting, which was held on Thursday afternoon at the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Community Center, was orchestrated to provide a status report on the bridge project, and to address questions from the public, and it began with a summary of how the 2.4-mile-long bridge is progressing.
Per Hernandez, the new Jug Handle Bridge is roughly 20% complete, and to date, the state has spent roughly $65 million on construction efforts out of the $145 million total budget.
Since starting in the summer of 2018, the primary focus has been on building the project’s one-of-a-kind rail system, or gantry system, which will enable crews to move materials and construction efforts out into the Pamlico Sound. “It takes about 9-13 months to get the ‘building machines’ up and running,” said Hernandez. “In the next month or so, we will have all the equipment settled on the north end of the bridge.”
Once work commences in the water, the Jug Handle Bridge will have fewer obstacles than the Bonner Bridge replacement, due to its design. “The bridge is not anywhere as near a dramatic structure as the Basnight Bridge,” said Hernandez. “There is no navigation channel [in the Pamlico Sound], so we do not have to have a high rise section, [per the U.S. Coast Guard.]”
“We’re hoping for a completion of project – with traffic on the structure – by late 2020, but it’s looking more like [it will be finished] in early 2021,” he added.
The Jug Handle Bridge is considered part of Phase II of the Bonner Bridge Replacement Project, and is the last of the three bridges within the project guidelines to be built. The bridge will effectively bypass the S-Turns section of N.C. Highway 12 north of Rodanthe, which is highly susceptible to breaches during storms.
Once the Jug Handle Bridge is complete, the roughly 1.5-mile section of N.C. Highway 12 that will be bypassed will be dismantled, and the land will return to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
After the overview, Rodanthe property owners and residents who are immediately affected by the bridge project asked questions and voiced their concerns.
One of the most prevalent requests was for better communication in order for homeowners to be prepared for excess noise, and / or to have a better ability to notify their tenants of construction updates in the vicinity – specifically, when it came to pile driving. “That way, we can inform guests what they will see and hear when they are here,” said a Mirlo Beach property owner.
Hernandez said there have been internal discussions about providing better predictions on when pile driving would occur, and that they would look into compiling weekly schedule updates.
Another Tri-villages attendee asked about the potential impact on the Pappy’s Lane Shipwreck in the Pamlico Sound near Rodanthe, which was identified in October of 2017 by a team of researchers as a World War II troop transport. Hernandez confirmed that the Jug Handle Bridge would travel over the shipwreck, but that no pilings in either the temporary work or in the permanent structure will be driven into the wreck itself.
There were several clarification questions regarding the height of the bridge – which is designed to stand 15’ ft. above the Pamlico Sound – and several concerns about its ability to withstand high winds, and whether it would have to close when there are nor’easters or tropical storms in the area.
Hernandez stated that while there are currently no concrete guidelines when it comes to shutting down a bridge based on wind speeds, a task force was being initiated to gauge and formulate a wind policy for the future. The idea of the task force stemmed from an incident during 2016’s Hurricane Matthew when a truck tipped over on the Alligator River Bridge in mainland Dare County, and any ensuing policy would likely affect all coastal bridges – including the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge and the Wright Memorial Bridge – when a high wind threat occurs.
One Pappy Lane resident also pointed out that there has been an increase in flooding on his street when there were heavy rains, due to the high elevation of the staging area. “Those heavy rains now run right onto Pappy Lane,” he said.
There was also a lot of lingering frustration on how the project came to fruition from many attendees, as well as concerns with the design of the bridge, which jets out into the Pamlico Sound, and has a round-a-bout in Rodanthe instead of a traffic signal.
More than one in-person or online attendee shared concerns that the roundabout could create a safety hazard, nothing that people would have to shift from driving in a 55 mph speed limit zone to a 35 mph speed limit zone where the roundabout begins. There were also concerns about summertime weekend traffic, and if the layout of the bridge would cause traffic back-ups on busy check-in days.
Maintaining soundside watersports and fishing access were also vocal concerns, with at least one public commenter requesting that the NCDOT work with local residents to identify potential new access points. “We can work together as a community to find watersports access,” he said.
Questions were also asked about the proposed removal of artificial sandbags in the section of the current roadway where N.C. Highway 12 will be dismantled, however Hernandez confirmed that no sandbags would be removed from the residential areas near Mirlo Beach.
One resident also wondered about other hot spots on the island that have become more prominent since the bridge was first discussed roughly a decade ago. While the Jug Handle Bridge is the last of the three bridges in the Bonner Bridge replacement project to be built, (the other two being the Capt. Richard Etheridge Bridge on Pea Island and the Basnight Bridge), Hernandez noted that, in the past, the NCDOT has raised N.C. Highway 12 by roughly a foot in sections that were prone to flooding, which has helped deal with overwash and flooding.
Updates on the status of the Jug Handle Bridge, as well as planned construction activities from Sept. 25 through Oct. 26, are available online at https://www.ncdot.gov/projects/nc-12-rodanthe/Pages/planned-construction.aspx.
In addition, more information on the bridge project, which includes project history, maps, documents, and videos, can be found at https://www.ncdot.gov/projects/nc-12-rodanthe/Pages/default.aspx.
This story originally appeared on OBXToday.com. Read More local stories here.