By JOY CRIST
Almost exactly two and a half years ago, county and state officials gathered at the base of the Bonner Bridge to ceremoniously dip their shovels in the dirt and mark the launch of the new Bonner Bridge project. And my, how much has changed in just a couple of years’ time.
Since the April 16, 2016 Groundbreaking Ceremony, we’ve already completed one component of the three-pronged project – the new Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge on Pea Island. We’ve also started the Jug Handle Bridge north of Rodanthe, and are just a couple of months away from being able to cruise along the new Bonner Bridge, which is in the final stages of construction.
We’re also close to launching the new passenger ferry from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke, the first of its kind for the North Carolina Ferry System, and have already beta-tested the new Ocracoke village tram service in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.
So with so many projects going on at once, (and at drastically varied levels of completion), let’s check in on the islands’ big transportation projects to see what has been accomplished so far, and what’s still left to do.
Ocracoke Passenger Ferry
The new catamaran-style passenger ferry was originally going to launch in the summer of 2018, but the process was delayed as the vessel itself was taking longer to construct than previously planned. The 98-passenger boat is still being worked on by U.S. Workboats in the small town of Hubert, N.C., (near Swansboro), but other pieces of the project are coming together nicely.
Two passenger lounge areas have already been built on both sides of the future ferry route, including one at the Hatteras village ferry terminal, and one on the edge of the Ocracoke village terminal. In addition, in the wake of Hurricane Florence, the new public trams that will provide transportation to visitors in and around Ocracoke village were tested, as vehicular ferry service to the island was limited at the time.
“The reason that we ran them after the hurricane was because with the Hatteras [vehicular ferry] not running, there was too much traffic for the sound routes to Ocracoke,” said Tim Haas, NCDOT Public Relations Officer. “So we told people at the time, if you can’t make a reservation [on the sound routes] with your car, walk onboard and take the trams… This was a great way to get them up and running, use the route, and make sure everything was in working order.”
“Right now, the trams are ready, the visitor facilities are ready, and we are just waiting on the boat.”
Currently, the NCDOT is hoping to receive the completed vessel in December or January. From there, the vessel will be tested on a number of “trial runs” to ensure everything runs smoothly.
Assuming all is successful, paid passenger ferry service is expected to begin in mid-May in the spring of 2019, just in time for the summer visitor season to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.
New Bonner Bridge
Who else is ridiculously excited to take a test spin on the new Bonner Bridge? Well, the fabulous news is that we won’t have to wait much longer.
On October 29, the Bonner Bridge reached a major milestone in its roughly three-year project timeline when the last batch of concrete was poured on the final road deck of the new bridge structure.
Three days later, Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative (CHEC) announced that they were starting their phase of the endeavor by setting up new transmission cables along the underneath of the bridge, which will eventually replace the current cables stationed at the original bridge structure. The power is expected to be switched to its new permanent location at around the same time that the new bridge is open for traffic.
There’s still some work to do on the bridge to be sure, but we are in the final stretch. Guardrails have to be constructed, and the “on ramps” for the new bridge have to be completed as well.
But as of right now, the new Bonner Bridge is on track for a mid-January 2019 opening date. It is likely to open one lane at a time – with one direction of traffic flowing on the new bridge as the other lane is being worked on, while traffic in the opposite direction (north or south) is directed to the old, current Bonner Bridge.
Ceremonies for the bridge opening are in the process of being planned, but the potential weather that accompanies the mid-January opening certainly leads to extra considerations. After all, in January of 2018, Hatteras Island experienced several deep freezes that lasted for a few days, so an outdoor ceremony to celebrate the grand opening might not be the most comfortable and feasible affair.
Even so, expect to start cruising the new bridge in just a couple of months, and to watch in the upcoming year as the old bridge slowly disappears from the landscape. The current bridge, which was built in 1963, will be demolished after the new bridge opens, with remnants from the structure going to bolster four artificial reefs in the Oregon Inlet area. (Although 1,000 feet of the existing structure at the southern end of Oregon Inlet will remain in place and will be open for pedestrians and fishermen, and the rail will be updated at this site to be more pedestrian-friendly and safer.)
The project in its entirety – which includes the removal of the existing bridge – is slated to be completed by September 2019, but when it comes to safely travelling across a new bridge which features a 100-year lifespan and seven navigational spans, we’re only 60 days or so away. (But who’s counting?)
Jug Handle Bridge
The last portion of the three-bridge undertaking on Hatteras Island, the Jug Handle Bridge, quietly started in the summer of 2018, and has been slowly but steadily progressing ever since. The new 2.4-mile bridge will eventually extend from Rodanthe to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, bypassing the sensitive S-Curves area north of Rodanthe which is prone to storm-related flooding.
We’re still more or less in the staging portion of the project, with a rail system being constructed to make it easier to move materials out to the Pamlico Sound. Right now, all work is concentrated near the Rodanthe terminus of the bridge, and there is not a set timeframe on when work on the Pea Island side of the bridge will begin. Based on the current schedule, the Jug Handle Bridge is still expected to open to traffic by late 2020, and residents and visitors should start to see more action on both sides of the project in the months to come.
A decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine that we would have not one, but three new bridges in our immediate future. (Although to be fair, a decade ago, we also didn’t need a new “Lego Bridge” as Irene’s Inlet on Pea Island wasn’t cut until 2011.) But now, we’re not only on our way to having a safer route throughout the islands, but also a new means of accessing Ocracoke and / or Hatteras Island without a vehicle.
Don’t forget that replacing the original bridge – which surpassed its 30 year lifespan in 1993 – was an endeavor that locals literally worked on for decades through organizations like the original “Replace the Bridge Now Citizens Action Committee” and the “Bridge Moms” movement. But now that we’re getting closer and closer to the bridge’s completion date, there’s ample reason to sit back, breathe a sigh of relief, and just enjoy the anticipation.