Island Free Press: At 95% complete, Jug Handle Bridge could open as early as February

Arial view of the Jug Handle Bridge. [photo by Kerry Hooper, Jr. of Hooper Photography Solutions, LLC, courtesy Island Free Press]

By Joy Crist, Island Free Press
With 95% of the Jug Handle Bridge project finished as of December 2, the new bridge is expected to be complete by early 2022, with traffic shifting onto the structure in February or March, per an update from the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s (NCDOT) resident engineer for the project, Pablo Hernandez.

“If the weather holds, we could be looking at an early February opening date,” said Hernandez. “If the weather doesn’t cooperate, a March opening [would be more likely.]”

Once the bridge is open to traffic, it will have a speed limit of 55 mph. The speed limit will reduce to 45 mph at the curve on the southern end of the structure, and will reduce again to 35 mph before traffic enters the new roundabout. The bridge will also have a 100-year lifespan, like the newly constructed Basnight Bridge over Oregon Inlet.

“A 100-year design life that doesn’t mean we’ll have to do any [work] in the next 100 years, but with appropriate management and maintenance activities, we should get 100 years out of this structure,” said Hernandez.

A name has not been selected yet for the informally dubbed Jug Handle Bridge, and NCDOT Senior Public Involvement Officer, Diane Wilson, said that there were currently no open requests for a specific name in the appropriate NCDOT committees. (The NCDOT’s bridge naming policy, as well as the application, can be found online at http://connect.ncdot.gov/municipalities/.)

Hernandez also noted that there have been discussions on the Dare County level about a potential grand opening “Bridge Day,” where the public could walk or bike along the bridge before it opens to traffic, similar to the ceremony that occurred with the February 2019 opening of the new Oregon Inlet Bridge. Though no specifics have been confirmed yet, details of a potential event will likely become available once the opening date comes into clearer focus.

Arial view of Rodanthe. Photo by Kerry Hooper, Jr. of Hooper Photography Solutions, LLC

Roadway work at the southern (Rodanthe) end of the project resumed in October with a significant number of activities, and southbound traffic was shifted onto the completed portion of the roundabout on November 19.

“One of the questions I received from the community was… ‘Why the traffic shift?’” said Hernandez. “And the answer is that this allows us to complete the roundabout on the east side of the roundabout feature.”

Essentially, due to the adjacent wetlands, overhead power transmission lines, and limited Right of Way, traffic could not be shifted to an “on-site detour” to complete the roundabout in one operation. As a result, the southbound traffic shift in November was required to continue working on the roundabout project.

As for construction of the structure itself, all of the major elements of building the bridge have been completed, which means that all 352 pilings have been installed, all 388 concrete girders have been set, and all 107 deck spans have been cast.

Now, NCDOT crews and subcontractors are turning their attention to installing the concrete barrier rail, and texturing 480,500 square feet, (or 11 acres), of the deck space. Texturing the bridge deck is expected to begin in January 2022, and all work will likely be done at night, as other concurrent tasks are performed.

In addition, work trestle gantries, cranes, and platforms are currently being dismantled and trucked off the bridge, and part of the dismantling process will involve erecting a crane on the bridge deck to dismantle the last crane remaining on the structure.  NCDOT anticipates that the temporary work trestle will be removed by the end of January or early February 2022.

Casting of the remaining concrete barrier rails will begin on December 6, with the goal to complete this part of the project by Christmas. This in turn will allow 14,000 linear feet of the two-bar metal railing to be installed on the concrete barrier rail, which will create a bicycle-safe environment along the bridge.

Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative (CHEC) and NCDOT will start installing the hanger system and conduit under the bridge for electrical power and fiber optic utilities, and this work is expected to begin on December 6.

NCDOT is also working on installing steel expansion joints in the bridge. Currently, there are small gaps that are approximately 5-feet wide every four spans to allow additional concrete and steel components to be installed. Once the expansion joints are installed, an approximately 2-inch wide cap will be sealed with a rubber membrane to allow for the future expansion and contraction of the bridge as needed.

Work to remove the existing N.C. Highway 12 pavement and sandbags on Pea Island in the S-Curves area will begin once traffic is shifted to the new bridge. Hernandez said that NCDOT has submitted a variance request to the Coastal Resource Commission to create a modified cul-de-sac, (allowing vehicles to turn around), and to install sandbags and dunes in the immediate area along the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge’s boundary. The variance request is currently on the commission’s agenda for their February 2022 meeting, although parking will likely not be allowed in the ensuing cul-de-sac, (if it is approved), and in certain surrounding areas.

Existing sandbags will also be left in the Mirlo Beach area, south of the refuge boundary.

The Jug Handle Bridge is considered part of Phase II of the Bonner Bridge Replacement Project, and is the final bridge of the three new bridges on Hatteras Island to be built. (The Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge on Pea Island was completed in the spring of 2018, and the Bonner Bridge replacement was completed in 2019.)

Once complete, the Jug Handle Bridge will connect the southern portion of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge to northern Rodanthe, bypassing the S-Turns section of N.C. Highway 12, which is highly susceptible to breaches and ocean overwash during storms.

Updates on the status of the Jug Handle Bridge, as well as planned construction activities in the coming month, 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.

The next update meeting, (if the bridge hasn’t already opened), will be held on Thursday, March 3.

This story originally appeared on OBXToday.com. Read More local stories here.