Organizers were busy putting out more chairs, even as the recent N.C. Department of Transportation hearing on the proposed new bridge connecting Topsail Island to the mainland was getting underway.
The crowd was drawn to the Moose lodge on the mainland for a meeting to explain what the N.C. DOT had in mind – a $57 million (80 percent federal funds, 20 percent state) high-level (65-foot clearance), fixed-span bridge.
The new bridge will replace the swing bridge, which the DOT calls “functionally obsolete,” that has served to shuttle people to the beach for well over half a century.
Repair and rehabilitation of the existing bridge is not an option as they “do not meet the objects of the project,” according to DOT facilitator Diane Wilson.
The N.C. DOT looked at a number of alternatives, dismissing some early in the process, and weeding out other possibilities more recently, before settling on Alternative 17. It is most preferred by residents, according to surveys and comments, results in the fewest number of relocations, connects to the main business district, and has the least impact on wetlands and environmentally sensitive areas. It also costs the least of any of the serious candidates.
It is to be located about 900 feet south of the existing bridge, with two travel lanes, two bicycle lanes and a 10-foot multi-use lane separated from all other traffic by a concrete barrier. That lane could be converted to another travel lane in emergencies requiring evacuation.
On the mainland, the DOT is proposing that traffic approach the new bridge from a roundabout, with four “legs” bringing in cars from three directions. Once on the island, a second roundabout will have three legs, including the one from the bridge.
Despite the size of the audience, only a handful of people spoke, and most were happy to have a new bridge in the works, if they were not overwhelmingly in favor of the change. Those in favor appreciated the sentimental value of the old structure which so many have expressed throughout this planning process, but “this isn’t about sentiment,” one speaker noted, “it’s about safety.”
The main sticking point – for those who welcome the bridge and for those who are not so sure – seemed to be the three-legged roundabout on the island side, specifically whether it would be sufficient to handle incoming traffic.
That, and the bridge is really only two lanes, which many claimed will not be up to the task and is “obsolete before it is built,” according to one speaker.
Right-of-way acquisition is expected to begin next year, with construction getting underway in 2017.
Those who were unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting have until Aug. 26 to comment in writing to Diane Wilson, NCDOT Human Environment Section, 1598 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699.