After an unplanned delay due to a damaged expansion joint, the Jug Handle Bridge is expected to open to traffic next week, after Memorial Day Weekend, with project managers eyeing a Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday opening.
The main items left on the to-do list are pressure washing the bridge structure, paving, and adding the permanent lane markings. This work is being performed by the contractor TMI – a subcontractor of Flatiron Construction – which is scheduled to arrive and start operations early next week.
“The weather and the arrival of the subcontractor are the two main driving factors [for the bridge opening],” said NCDOT Resident Engineer for the project, Pablo Hernandez.
These remaining projects require sunny and dry weather, with minimal humidity, so the upcoming forecast will likely determine when the bridge officially opens to the public.
The project was delayed in April due to a damaged expansion joint, which was one of 26 expansion joints on the 2.4-mile-long structure. Expansion joints allow the concrete to naturally expand and contract without cracking during the bridge’s estimated 100-year lifespan, and this damage required a new expansion joint to be delivered to the site to replace the original one.
“We could have made it work, because that’s what we do here on the Outer Banks, but it just wasn’t the right thing to do,” said Hernandez. “We want it to be able to take that impact from lots of traffic, and it would have potentially affected maintenance over time.”
“One of the things that we have in our contract with Flatiron [Construction] is a rideability specification where we want a smooth ride,” said Hernandez. “Every time you have a joint, you have the potential for a bump, and so we’re trying to make the bridge ride as smooth as possible.”
The mid-May nor’easter extended this delay, as although the replacement expansion joint arrived on the Outer Banks just before the storm, it was unable to be delivered due to the multiple-day closure of N.C. Highway 12.
“We were shut down for four days – Monday through Thursday – during that week,” said Hernandez.
However, since the mid-May storm, crews have been able to complete a number of final tasks that were required before the bridge opens to vehicles.
“The [construction crews] have adjusted their schedule to continue doing as much as they can on the bridge while the bridge is closed to traffic,” said Hernandez.
Traffic signs have been installed, (as have reflectors), small areas of the bridge have been patched, the roadway surface has been shaved to make it as smooth as possible, and testing has been conducted throughout the structure to ensure the bridge can handle heavy amounts of water.
The roundabout at the southern terminal is complete, and will open concurrently with the Jug Handle Bridge. Once open, the stretch of N.C. Highway 12 near Mirlo Beach will end in a cul-de-sac at Rodanthe’s northern borders to keep the area open to homeowners and vacationers, although beach parking in this area will not be allowed.
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 recent 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.)
The finished bridge will provide two 12-foot lanes with 8-foot shoulders, and have approximately 15.8 feet of clearance above mean high water. This means that if a new inlet does open up in the Mirlo Beach area, (the section of the island that the bridge was designed to bypass), it will not affect the operation or accessibility of the bridge itself.
The bridge will have a 55-mph speed limit, with roughly a 1-mile-long passing zone. As traffic approaches the southern terminal, the speed limit will drop to 45 mph, and then 35 mph before entering the roundabout.
While the bridge is open, Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative will continue its work installing the cables under the bridge, which will replace the overhead power lines that currently run parallel to N.C. Highway 12.
Once it’s up and running, the Jug Handle Bridge will bypass the Mirlo Beach and S-Turns section of N.C. Highway 12, which is highly susceptible to breaches and ocean overwash during storms, including the most recent May nor’easter.
Though there have been casual ideas and conversations about a new name for the structure, (a decision that is spearheaded by Dare County), there have been no official suggestions for a bridge name yet, other than the informal “Jug Handle Bridge” moniker.
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.