State transportation officials acknowledged that closure of the G.V. Barbee Sr. Bridge for rehabilitation will pose problems for businesses, residents and visitors but pledged last Thursday to do their best to minimize the disruption.
N.C. Department of Transportation deputy division engineer Chad Kimes delivered some encouraging news at a joint meeting of the governing boards of Caswell Beach and Oak Island: the closure is now expected to last six months, instead of eight months as originally predicted.
Also, Kimes and engineer Kevin Bowen said DOT would hire a contractor to perform deep patch work and repave East Oak Island Drive after the bridge work is finished.
“This is a perfect opportunity to clean things up as we leave,” Kimes said.
The revised timeline calls for closing the bridge in mid-October of this year, just after the U.S. Open King Mackerel Tournament. The bridge will be rehabilitated and re-open before Easter 2019, Kimes said. The contract will include cash incentives for every day the contractor can finish before that time.
By spending $6-million to $7-million to preserve the bridge now, DOT can avoid having to completely rebuild the bridge later at an estimated cost of $70-million to $80-million, Kimes said. The work should add 25 to 50 years of life to the bridge, first built 45 years ago.
Kimes stressed that there was no sense of urgency on the repairs and the structure is safe. DOT is working on an accelerated schedule because it has the funding to spend on Barbee and other “high-value bridges.” The Barbee Bridge has an average daily traffic count of 12,000 vehicles.
Contractors are scheduled to start building two elevated interchanges and widening parts of N.C. 211 next year. Kimes said DOT wanted to move quickly on the Barbee Bridge work so it would not conflict with the other scheduled improvements.
Engineer Bowen said the work included replacing 28 spans on the island side of the structure, along with 392 high-tension concrete beams. There will also be extensive repairs to places where concrete has cracked or chipped and fallen off.
Bowen showed photographs of places were the reinforcing steel inside the concrete is being exposed to salt air, which causes the metal to swell as it rusts and push away the surrounding concrete. He also showed how the deterioration is causing longitudinal cracks in the road surface.
Improvements in standards and materials since the bridge was built in 1972 means the new beams will have salt and corrosion inhibitors built into the concrete. The grouting used to seal the beam surface is also a superior, modern material, Bowen said.
Bowen pointed out the old-style post-and-beam guardrail on the Barbee Bridge and noted there had been a fatality last year when a truck crashed through it. He said there was a similar mishap in Charlotte with a bridge of the same design.
Refurbishment of the Barbee Bridge will include a new sealed deck (road surface) as well as a new, taller solid concrete guard barrier with two aluminum rails to help protect bicyclists and pedestrians. The new barrier and rail will look like that on the newer bridge on Middleton Avenue, called the Swain’s Cut Bridge.
Bowen said the work would not close access to any homes or businesses.
Oak Island Mayor Cin Brochure said she was excited that the work would include repaving all of East Oak Island Drive. Kimes said if it was necessary to close parts of the road, it would happen only at night during the tourist season. Because all of the road has three lanes, it’s likely that only a single lane would be closed at any given time.
Karen Sphar, executive director of the Southport-Oak Island Chamber of Commerce, said her group is working on marketing plans for affected businesses. The chamber is developing a logo and package called “It’s Worth the Drive - Go Local.”
She said the chamber would work with members and others on marketing plans and distribute worksheets about adjusting their plans to handle the bridge closure.
While the event could affect a lot of businesses, the chamber will continue to “showcase how mighty and vibrant our community is.” Sphar said. “We are encouraging our residents to go local and continue to support our business community.”
Mike Defeo of the Oak Island Small Business Alliance said he and other business operators took the planned closure seriously but were using the opportunity to talk about working together to keep their customer base. Remote sales kiosks and delivery services are among the ideas being floated.
Responding to questions from the audience, Brunswick County Emergency Medical Services operations manager Kevin Mulholland said the county would continue to shuffle ambulances around to maintain its current goal of answering all calls within 12 minutes. The county has seven to 10 paramedic-level ambulances on duty at all times, he said. Also, Oak Island Fire Department sends paramedics to all medical calls.
Mulholland noted that AirLink helicopters are available if needed, but said they were used in the county last year 16 times. Residents will enjoy “the same level of service,” he said.
Oak Island assistant fire chief Steve Conway said his department would likely reposition equipment at South Harbour Village onto the island during the closure. Oak Island will also station its fire marshal and possibly other personnel at South Harbour.
Southport and St. James have agreed to cover calls on the mainland side during the closure. Southport may keep some of its firefighting equipment at South Harbour, Conway said. Southport already has a satellite fire station off Long Beach Road.
Bowen, responding to a question, said that DOT engineers would monitor the timing of traffic signals on the mainland side of the Swain’s Cut Bridge and make adjustments, if needed, because of the added traffic volume.
Les Tubb, superintendent of Brunswick County Schools, said the staff was planning for the closure and would have to add seven more bus runs to the routes. Currently buses do double-duty and that won’t be practical when the Barbee Bridge is closed, he said. He estimated the additional runs would cost $116,000 to $117,500.
Tubb said the extra 12 miles to go to Middleton Avenue could mean slightly earlier pick-ups and slightly later drop-offs for some students. “We are trying to work it so as not to affect times,” he said. “We support what you’re doing,” he said. “We will work with you and help you.”
Tubb said school officials would also consider making East Yacht Drive the main route for some buses instead of East Oak Island Drive.
Tom Siemers, CEO of Dosher Memorial Hospital, said staff was considering relocating some diagnostic services from Southport to the Long Beach Road clinic.
Shop owner DiAne Benzie asked that Oak Island and DOT consider signage that would make it clear that while the bridge may be closed, the businesses along Long Beach Road would remain open.
DOT district engineer Karen Collette said the state would work with the towns and businesses on signage and would distribute information and updates on social media. She said DOT would also work with the chamber of commerce on geofencing applications, which allow smart phones to access site-specific information on closures and businesses that are open in the affected areas.
Brochure and Oak Island Town Council member Charlie Blalock both remarked that while the closure would likely have negative impacts, they were encouraged to see members of the greater community working together to minimize the problems.