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The Sunset Beach, NC, Pontoon Bridge

Attention Readers: Please email your memories about the Pontoon Bridge to me as soon as possible. I will share them with the Committee preparing a Bridge Remembrance Book. The new bridge should be finished in September or October. Here again is my email address: jo@okeefes.org. Thank you. Jo O'Keefe

Until September, 2010, Sunset Beach will have the last pontoon bridge crossing the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The current pontoon bridge was constructed by the North Carolina Department of Transportation in 1961. It replaced a cable swing bridge built in 1958 by Mannon Gore. Development of the island began after Gore purchased the island in 1955 from the Brooks Family and the International Paper Company. Incorporation occurred in 1963.

The center floating portion was a timber creosote barge. Approximately every two years men took the barge out of the water, closing the bridge to vehicular traffic for about two to three weeks at a time, to make repairs. The bridge was "dry-docked" for repairs in at least 1964, 1967, 1969, and 1971.

In 1984 the floating portion of the bridge was replaced with the current metal barges. They were purchased from a company in South Carolina by the name of Shugart, hence giving them the name "Shugart Barges." The bridge is now composed of a group of eight barges hooked together with a bridge built on top of them. The barges form one long floating bridge. It is opened and closed with motors, pulleys, cables and other mechanical parts. The metal barges have been in place for 23 1/2 years. Exposure to salt water has resulted in extensive corrosion.

The bridge opens on the hour when vessels are waiting. It opens for commercial vessels at all times. In real life, that means that iit might open on the hour for a line of pleasure boats as occurred in photos below, close, and need to be re-opened promptly because a fishing trawler is approaching.

An average of six times per month the tide is so low that the bridge cannot be opened because of the risk of being mired in mud. In that case, boats must wait through low tide until the water level becomes high enough for the bridge tender to open the bridge safely.

Bridge Tender's House in front of Twin Lakes Seafood Restaurant, during opening for traffic on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, Sunset Beach, NC, 05/10/10
Bridge open for boat traffic, 06/04/10

Beginning in 1983, Sunset Beach property owners opposed construction of a high-rise bridge such as those approved for Holden Beach and Ocean Isle Beach. Opposition and lawsuits continued for a quarter of a century. The cost for a new, high-rise bridge for Sunset Beach rose from an estimated $5.2 million to nearly $32 million. During those years the North Carolina Department of Transportation spent as much as nearly a half million dollars per year to maintain the old bridge. Besides personnel costs to operate the bridge, all parts of the pontoon bridge are maintained by the NCDOT to ensure safety. The timber roadway surface must be replaced approximately every two years. In comparison to the high expense involved in maintaining the wooden bridge, in 2006 NCDOT spent under $3,800 to maintain the nearby high-rise bridge on Ocean Isle Beach.

Because the bridge opens for commercial vessels regardless of the time, there are additional delays for vehicular traffic. In 2005 the Average Daily Traffic was 4,300 vehicles per day. By 2007 the Annual Average Daily Traffic had increased to approximately 7,000 vehicles per day. It continues to increase. Scores and sometimes hundreds of vehicles are delayed on both the island side and the mainland when the bridge opens. In the right-hand photo below, sailboats pass through the bridge. Vessels on the waterway take precedence because the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway was constructed before the bridge.

I have business cards saying that, by moving here, I traded traffic signals for mesmerizing waves. Little did I know that I would spend hours sitting in my car or pacing near it blocked by a railroad crossing gate waiting for the bridge to gyrate or stopped by the bridge traffic signal. In the right photo below, two fishing trawlers caused an extra opening of the bridge.

During that quarter century of delays, both vehicular traffic and boats were held up daily, wasting fuel and ruining people's schedules. Visitors are stranded on the island and mainland for many hours at a time when part of the bridge breaks.

Boats waiting for bridge to open
Sunset Beach Bridge broken on 10/12/04 with workmen repairing it
Persons wait on the island side (left) and the mainland side (right) while repairs are underway
Boats passing through the open bridge

The most serious issue has always been safety. Getting a person off the island during a medical crisis such as a seizure, heart attack or attack by a Portuguese Man of War takes a long time. Emergency crews have delays reaching persons in need on the island. The largest ladder truck, weighing 70,000 pounds, cannot cross the bridge because of weight restrictions. Beach fires spread rapidly. A fire fighter told me that half of the houses on the island could burn down if trucks were unable to respond to a fire call.

The bridge tender house
A lone fisherman at dawn

In December 2007 Judge Louise Flanagan refused to grant an injunction requested by the Sunset Beach Taxpayers Association and the Brunswick Environmental Action Team to deny construction of the high-rise bridge. That allowed NCDOT to award the contract. The opponents withdrew their final lawsuit. One cannot argue with the wisdom of construction the high-rise bridge. The pontoon bridge has a sufficiency rating of 4 with 100 being highest score.

The contract was awarded to English Construction Company, Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia. On February 19, 2008, English Construction staff, along with NCDOT engineers, arrived on the site. Soon afterwards workmen began to clear trees and do other preliminary tasks.

To follow construction of the bridge, go to http://okeefes.org/Barrier_Islands/Sunset_Beach/Bridge_Construction/Index/New_Bridge_Home_Page.htm.

Boats passed through in both directions under the final unfinished span of the new bridge and through the open Pontoon Bridge, 06/03/10
A construction worker waited patiently while the Pontoon Bridge opened and closed and then called on his cell phone to let co-workers know that it was back in place, 06/03/10
A touching aspect of construction of the new Sunset Beach Bridge is the effort of the NC Department of Transportation to preserve a threatened species of lily. In 2005 unususal signs piqued my curiosity years. I learned from Mason Herndon, NC DOT Environmental Supervisor, that the Rain Lily, Zephyranthes simpsonii, grew in the right of way across from Bill's Seafood. At least three years before English Construction Company arrived in Sunset Beach, NC DOT was already protecting one of our natural resources, knowing that the area where they grew would be re-routed when a new intersection leading to the bridge was built.

In the Spring of 2007 1,166 bulbs of the lily were moved to the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension Agency. After the bridge has been completed, they will be replanted near the mainland base of the new bridge. Melissa Miller, NCDOT Environmental Biologist, supervised the relocation. The lily photos were taken by Ms. Miller.

The lilies bloomed were in bloom again in May 2010.

Zephyranthes simpsonii, Rain Lilies, growing at the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension Agency

Unless there are delays, the new Sunset Beach Bridge should be completed in September or October 2010. The pontoon bridge, detour and work bridges will be removed after the new bridge is in use.

Many persons are interested in the fate of the pontoon bridge after the new bridge opens. The bridge and its barges are not expected to last beyond the end of 2010. The Town of Sunset Beach is considering ways to salvage parts of the old bridge. The current bridge tender's house, one of several replacements of the original house, was erected in 1976 and might not be salvageable. Because both a park and a boat ramp are planned for area near the waterway next to the new bridge, we can hope that remnants of the bridge will be incorporated into them.