Our thoughts

by Staff
Wednesday, August 14, 2013

This summer the public’s complaint level about the ICWW drawbridge closings and restricted lanes has risen like the thermostat’s mercury. Drawbridge repairs have been blamed for everything from missed appointments to the excessive burning of fossil fuels.

Suggestions from irate motorists and residents have poured in on a weekly basis: 

Open closed lanes during the daylight hours, when the perception is that no real work is being conducted.

Photograph the scant handful of bridge workers to document what has been widely observed as the contractor’s failure to complete its work within a “reasonable time.” 

Open the bridge to recreational boaters on demand rather than on the hour.

Install web cameras at the bridge for residents to consult, like surf or weather cams, before venturing from their homes. This could help prevent locals from becoming ensnared in traffic backups all the way to the Lumina Avenues on the east side, or all the way to Military Cutoff on the mainland.

One full-time resident and property owner wrote to Mayor Pro Tem Bill Sisson last month suggesting that the bridge tender Tweet the openings and closings. 

The sticking point in all of these comments is the contractor’s extended timeframe for the bridge repair is creating more opportunities for residents and passersby to perceive that the work conducted is not progressing efficiently. 

Now a consecutive three-night closure is planned for this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday Aug. 19-21 from 11:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. The reason for the closures is for NCDOT’s contractor, American Bridge Company, to clean and paint the bridge. Both procedures are not friendly to the paint jobs on passing vehicles.  

The NCDOT’s earlier plans to shut down the only access on and off Wrightsville Beach nightly from July 29-31 fell through due to rainy, humid weather, but neither the public nor the island businesses affected were notified about the change in plan. Nor was the media. 

Although dry conditions are required to operate the cleaning apparatus and for the new coatings of paint on the bridge to dry properly, American Bridge is attempting to complete a process during one of southeastern North Carolina’s wettest months. Even the DOT can’t bend nature to its will, and wouldn’t you know it, rains are predicted again next week.

Some local businesses maintain active cash registers until 2 a.m. There is generally a mass exodus of clients leaving the beach between 2 and 3 a.m. each morning. These businesses were told to close four hours early on three consecutive nights at the height of the only real income-producing summer season, only for the rain to prevent the work from being done. Now businesses are being asked to close early, before Labor Day, again.

Also potentially inconvenienced are residents and hotel guests catching planes in the wee hours who travel from the beach to ILM, as well as the beachside hotels looking to pick up late check-ins. 

While the sitting aldermen may be reluctant to challenge the NCDOT because they’re trying to make nice-nice for other pending projects — like improving bike lanes along the Pelican Drive/West Salisbury Street corridor, mitigating the summer traffic cluster on Waynick Boulevard, and the age’s old proposed roundabout at the town’s main point of entry — the public’s complaint level over upcoming prime season nighttime closings finally got everyone’s attention.

The roar reached the ears of state lawmakers at the end of the long legislative session when a fed-up local merchant-led coalition began pushing to effect more feasible bridge repair strategies. 

Members of the newly revived Wrightsville Beach Chamber of commerce lobbied North Carolina Rep. Rick Catlin and fellow Rep. Ted Davis Jr. One of the requests this group made is for the delay of any future bridge closings until the off-season. 

Under its contract American Bridge is allowed 12 nighttime total lane closures. But the Wrightsville drawbridge is the only ingress and egress onto the two islands that make up Wrightsville proper unless you travel by boat, or choose to swim. 

The last time the bridge was closed for much needed bridge repairs was Feb. 8-22, 2001. It was the off-season. Everyone coped with the 11:30 p.m. until 5 a.m. curfew. 

Catlin and Davis met with a NCDOT representative on Aug. 1 suggesting a public presentation to explain the bridge repair progress and the schedule challenges. The legislators requested the meeting be held in a public setting, to allow stakeholders to “hear it straight from the horse’s mouth,” Davis said on Tuesday. 

Mayor David Cignotti agreed. The meeting is scheduled for Aug. 22 at town hall at 6 p.m., one night following this next round of scheduled closings. Town manager Tim Owens said the meeting might be moved elsewhere to accommodate a larger crowd if one is anticipated. 

Memo to Tim: Book a larger room. 

The public will be allowed to express itself and ask questions. Davis, who will attend along with Catlin, said it would be fruitless to do this and not allow the public to ask questions. 

Catlin said on Tuesday he hoped that at the public meeting people could express their traffic concerns and perhaps DOT could find a little flexibility. He also stated the obvious: our bridge is very important and it has to be repaired to preserve it for 30 years or more.

Established in 1900, American Bridge is a heavyweight in bridge building. Having built fantastic structures as well as having repaired other major bridges around the world, this is not American Bridge’s first rodeo. But no one from the bridge company is scheduled to be present at the meeting next week.

Meanwhile, during next week’s bridge closings, police cars with flashing blue lights will be stationed on each side of the bridge during the total closures and emergency vehicles (only) will be allowed to proceed across the bridge with very minimal delays. 

Advance messages to motorists will flash across peripheral marquees announcing the closures and turning away traffic.

To elected officials and chosen media outlets the DOT outlines these procedures in memo form with this tiny footnote: Detour: N/A.

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