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Topsail Island Bridge Replacement

Project Details



Pender County, NC

Client / Owner

North Carolina Department of Transportation


MOBI Award Winner – Most Voted Project Category, NCDOT, 2020

MOBI Award Honorable Mention – Rural Category, NCDOT, 2020

Quality of Life/Community Development (Medium Project) Award, SASHTO, 2020

Honor Award – Structural Systems Category, ACEC of North Carolina, Engineering Excellence Award

Excellence in Safety Award of Merit – Highway/Bridge, ENR Southeast’s 2019 Best Projects

Alleviating congestion to a popular vacation destination

Topsail Island’s Surf City is a popular tourist and beach vacation destination. It offers a beautiful oceanfront experience for those seeking a coastal getaway. The community has rapidly grown with both full-time and seasonal residents. With this population expansion comes the transportation infrastructure challenges of moving goods, services, and people on/off the island. The Topsail Island Bridge is one of only two bridges linking the island to the mainland and is the primary access road for Surf City and South Topsail Beach residents.

The community needed a new bridge solution to manage the traffic congestion. The historic Warren Truss swing bridge, constructed in the 1950s, was not operating efficiently, negatively impacting the town’s economy and emergency response capabilities. Replacing the historic bridge was a high-profile decision within the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and the Surf City community.

Designing with the oceanfront community

RS&H provided planning and design services, which included environmental analysis, NEPA documentation, traffic engineering, community engagement, roadway design, and hydraulic design. RS&H studied the impacts on the constraining physical and environmental features adjacent to the site and developed 20 alternative alignments for replacement, including an in-place replacement, a no-build option, and moving the bridge to the north or south. The team considered two types of structures: a bascule span bridge and a new high-rise span bridge.

NCDOT, along with the community and stakeholders, decided to replace the historic Warren Truss swing bridge with a non-movable, high-span structure that requires less maintenance than other alternatives.

The design comprised roadway approach layouts, hydraulic analysis, construction staging, and traffic control. The new bridge includes one lane of traffic in each direction and wide shoulders, allowing the bridge to convert to three lanes of traffic during an emergency evacuation event. Roundabouts were added to each bridge end to help control traffic flow. A multi-use path allows the bridge to be enjoyed by pedestrians and bicycles, an uncommon feature of North Carolina coastal bridges. Our team planned the bridge location and design to allow commuters the best view of the community park. This design promotes safety and efficiency for the community.

RS&H was tasked by environmental agencies to design the ends of the bridge to minimize impacts to coastal wetlands in order for the project to be permitted. We had the challenge of designing bridge bent locations to avoid a submerged aquatic vegetation area under part of the bridge and keeping the required open area for Intracoastal Waterway traffic. One of the most inventive achievements of the bridge was to incorporate a unique design feature to treat water runoff.

RS&H worked with the community to redevelop Roland Avenue (the old bridge roadway) as a “downtown destination” of Surf City with on-street parking, wide sidewalks on both sides, and better access to businesses affected by the relocation of the bridge and to the local park/boat ramp. This resulted in an economic benefit for this community.

High-profile community engagement

Early in the project, RS&H and NCDOT knew of a distrusting and skeptical group of local residents and business owners very attached to the existing swing-span bridge and threatened by any change to their community; this group evolved into proponents of the project after an engagement program that RS&H tailored specifically for this community. By using existing applications in a new way – including distributing information to every property on the island and an unprecedented amount of 10,000 newsletters, RS&H reached the community successfully. RS&H also held in-person small-group meetings and large-scale workshops to accommodate large crowds of people. Some hands-on meetings were where the residents were encouraged to sketch their solution ideas and see how their sketches were transformed into legitimate options. Using voice-over PowerPoint presentations, detailed 3D visualization renderings, iPad tablets at meetings (to zoom into project designs and view more details), and YouTube drive-through visualizations of the proposed bridge (see video above) helped convey the message to the local community. As evidence of the effectiveness of community engagement as part of the decision process, the crowd at the final public hearing stood to give NCDOT and its representatives a round of applause for their work. When the bridge opened, a large crowd of local residents came to the ceremony, proud of their accomplishment in steering the project development process.

“RS&H understands how to succeed on projects. They understand how to engage the public and earn their trust, to build those relationships, and those strong relationships equal success on projects.” – Chad Kimes, PE, NCDOT’s Division Engineer

Expect an exceptional journey from start to future

The new bridge promotes safety and transportation efficiency for the community. The high-rise structure was a cost-effective solution allowing the vehicular traffic to flow concurrently with vessel traffic that passes under the bridge. The new bridge opened nine months ahead of schedule and ultimately was a great success for RS&H, NCDOT, and the community. The new Surf City bridge is a signature landmark.

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