While a major safety and traffic improvement, nostalgia remains strong for town’s old swing bridge

PENDER COUNTY -- While some concerns remain a year after it opened -- and the town’s old much-beloved swing bridge still casts a long shadow, Surf City’s new $54 million high-rise bridge is overwhelmingly hailed as a success by officials and residents.


“From a public safety standpoint, it has been fantastic,” said Surf City Police Chief Ron Shanahan. “A lot of people were concerned about the roundabouts and we have had a few issues in the first few months,” mostly on the island side, he added. There is no doubt that the island side is a bit more confusing and complicated than the mainland side.


That likely is going to remain, though the N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) has added some signage that may ease driver confusion.


“They are still not yet done with the signage, from what I understand,” Shanahan said.


For his part, he’d like to see another speed limit sign or two on the bridge itself, but the DOT has indicated that’s not likely to happen.


“They really don’t want anything on those rails on the bridge itself,” Shanahan said.


Still, “overall it has been fantastic,” he said. “We had minimal accidents and they were all slow-speed accidents. It has been a blessing for us.”


’Functioning great’


Traffic flow onto and off Topsail Island, especially during the peak summer months, also has improved dramatically now that there are no more bridge openings that often created huge traffic jams on both sides of the Intracoastal Waterway.


Surf City resident Jay Lancaster agrees.


“I think it is functioning great,” he said. “It is handling the traffic so far. I think this coming year will tell us a lot more because I think this year the island was only at about half capacity on rentals being ready. We are liable to have a little more traffic next year.”


Pender Tourism Director Tammy Proctor said that, yes, tourism spending was down from the 2018 record of $101 million due to damage from Hurricane Florence, but final figures for the season have not yet been released.


But fewer tourists or not, the bridge worked fantastically well, she said.


Along with improved reliability over the aging swing bridge, which had a habit of breaking at the worst possible times, the high-rise bridge also offers a quantum leap in public safety for visitors, residents and first-responders -- especially during hurricane season.


Proctor added that she was unaware of any local businesses that had been hurt by changes in traffic patterns as a result of the span’s construction.


The new bridge certainly helps his frequent commute for surfing, said Hampstead retiree John Fahey. But there are a couple of design and engineering decisions that continue to baffle him, he said. One of those is the popular multi-use path over the bridge, because walkers who cross from the mainland can cause some problems when they reach the island, Fahey said.


“Every time you get off that walkway and come to the circle, you stop all the traffic to walk across the street,”he said. “They should have put a walkover there. There is enough traffic as it is, but on a weekend, when people are walking, they are stopping all the traffic just to cross the street. You don’t want to stop traffic in a roundabout; keeping traffic moving is the whole point.”


The roundabout itself seems a little tight, Fahey said.


“Some trucks seem to have a hard time making that turn,” he said, “and you can see all the curb work has tons of tire marks.”


Tourist destination


But what no one can dispute is the view from the top of the bridge, which has already become a tourist focal point.


“It’s a beautiful sight when you get to the top of the bridge,” Fahey said. “The view is just gorgeous.”


“Since it has opened, it has been the ‘Kodak moment’ for walkers and hikers,” Proctor agreed. “Visitors love walking to the peak and taking photos, especially sunrises and sunsets.


“The bridge has been the catalyst for walking clubs and joggers -- locally, it’s the only ‘climb’” Proctor added. “When the members of the Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail met here for their annual conference, hiking the bridge was one of the highlights of their agenda.”


The new bridge, which opened 10 months early, is 3,600 feet long and and at its apex sits 65 feet above the Intracoastal Waterway.


Swing bridge memories


Still, a year later there are folks who continue to wax nostalgic about the old swing bridge, Shanahan said.


“It’s understandable; nobody likes to see change,” he said. “The old bridge was an icon, something that people just cherished when they came to Topsail. You tend to kind of forget the times the swing bridge broke down, and you had to drive 20 miles out of your way.”


Lancaster, who has lived in Surf City for about five years, said he never minded the swing bridge.


“It was part of just knowing that you were here,” he said. “When it held you up, it gave you time to think about where you were and gave you a chance to see the boats.


“That was a cool aspect.”


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