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Sunday, February 5, 2023

Residents get first look at Heide Trask Drawbridge replacement proposals

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There to get a better understanding of far-reaching proposals that could have significant impact on traffic, business and the way-of-life in Wrightsville Beach, nearly 200 people attended an information session on Tuesday, May 21 on proposals to potentially replace the Heide Trask Drawbridge that links the island to the mainland.

A rendering of the pedestrian and bicycle upgrades of a possible replacement for the Heide Trask Drawbridge.

And while most of those who came to the workshop at the Russ Fran Recreational Center had plenty of specific questions for officials from both the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Raleigh-based engineering firm RS&H, engineers told the crowd that the proposal was too early for definitive answers.

Officials told attendees that the study that proposed five potential concepts to replace the bridge was preliminary, designed to get feedback and assess the “feasibility” of the project. Still, at a standing-room-only presentation that ended the meeting, residents had pointed questions that engineers said were too early to answer.

One of the primary questions that residents asked was when the project would get underway, which Meredith Van Duyn, project engineer with RS&H said was too early to answer given that the project wasn’t even slated for funding. But given the conditions of the bridge, Van Duyn said that the bridge had a projected 23 years left in its lifespan before replacement would be a priority.

The aging drawbridge was safe, though it did have only a 39.2 sufficiency rating out of a possible 100, she said.

“It’s a safe bridge,” Van Duyn said. “Inspections are required every two years.”

Though safe, she told the crowd that maintenance and upkeep of the bridge was getting more expensive. Plus, some upgrades can’t be achieved since the bridge is at its weight capacity.

“The purpose of this study is to put something in front of you and get feedback,” Van Duyn said.

Indeed, NCDOT Chad Kimes said that the feasibility study is the first step in a long process to have the project placed in the State Transportation Improvement Program, which is updated every two years.

“It’s a data driven process,” Kimes said. “We look at congestion, traffic, costs for replacement, bicycle and pedestrian options, and other factors.”

One of the key benchmarks would be to win the support of the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which puts together long-term regional transportation plans.

The meeting was a key first step because it allows people to comment on the different design proposals, which included five concepts. Three of those concepts would replace the drawbridge with a new drawbridge, while the other two proposed building a high-rise bridge. Three of the proposals would require a new bridge be built to the north, while two had the bridge built to the south of the existing bridge. Since the current drawbridge connects the island to the mainland, the existing bridge would have to remain open and operational during construction of the new bridge.

The meeting saw scores of attendees from Wrightsville Beach and the surrounding area, many with a vested interest in what project was chosen. Some of the proposals would require the state to buy out residential and commercial property, potentially displacing businesses and homes.

Attendees voiced a variety of opinions and concerns. Four of the five concepts featured a roundabout, which was controversial as it would eliminate the need for a stoplight or stop sign, but can also be confusing for drivers. Another controversial element was whether the project should be a drawbridge or a high-rise bridge, which some said would be too big and unsightly.

“We all understand that something has to be done,” said Greg Holder, who lives in Wilmington but has a house in Wrightsville Beach. “But absolutely no roundabout. Folks here have a problem navigating a roundabout. The concept I like is a high-rise bridge, and I think the northern route is the best idea.”

Many who attended said it was too early for them to have specific thoughts on what plan is best, but were simply there to stay informed as it develops. Eliza Blackwell, who lives on Summer Rest Road, said a high-rise bridge could affect her ability to access U.S. 74/76 at Wrightsville Avenue.

“We’re trying to figure out the timeline. Want to know all the options, even though it’s still a long way off,” she said. “I love roundabouts. It would be a great addition.”

Marc Bush, who owns a condo in Wrightsville Beach and often bikes across the bridge, said he wanted better pedestrian and bicycle options for the bridge.

“I love the drawbridge but I think they’ll do a high-span bridge,” Bush said. “I’m comfortable with a roundabout.”

Meanwhile, Wrightsville Beach resident Joy Miller said that she wanted more information about the project’s timetable, adding she hoped a roundabout would be part of the plan.

“We need a roundabout,” she said. “That intersection is horrible.”

Adding to that, Ari Miller-Sissons said that whatever is built needs to be sustainable.

“What happens in 40 years,” he said.

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