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Topsail Island Bridge Reflects the Community's Voice

By Todd Kincaid

The southern portion of Topsail Island lies in Pender County, North Carolina. Since the 1970s, only two bridges served this 26-mile barrier island, even as boat traffic and bridge traffic increased. In 2005, a structural inspection indicated a very poor sufficiency rating for the steel truss swing span bridge, scoring six out of 100 points and was determined functionally obsolete because of its narrow road shoulders. To improve the overall structural capacity of the bridge, as well as allow emergency access, hurricane evacuation, and acceptable travel times, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) proposed to build a new bridge.

To help the NCDOT with this project, RS&H is providing planning and design services for the bridge replacement. In 2013, Topsail Island Bridge 2after studying 20 bridge designs that included various locations north and south of the existing bridge, officials reached an agreement to implement Alternative 17. This option is a fixed bridge that begins at the intersection of Roland Avenue, Little Kinston Road, and Atkinson Point on the mainland. After considerable deliberation, the project team determined that this approach was the best considering the economic, environmental, and social impacts.

Because of the unique character of the area, well-conceived and thorough public involvement was critical to success. According to Chad Critcher, who managed the design, the public-input process for the bridge replacement was the most extensive he had ever seen.

“It’s really uncommon to explore that many alternatives,” he said. “The NCDOT was committed to taking the time to let the process run its course and putting all the presentations on the table. The first public outreach was in the summer of 2009 with the last public meeting in July 2014.”

True Public Participation
With RS&H’s help, the NCDOT provided 3D visualization presentations, handouts, and newsletters. It also held public meetings and provided ongoing updates on the NCDOT YouTube channel to engage and inform the public. In addition, early in the design process, RS&H provided a blank aerial to members of the public so they could draw preferred alignments and then added our engineering expertise to produce alternatives.

Originally, there was a strong public sentiment to keep the new bridge in line with the historical character of the previous steel truss swing span bridge. Residents felt that the old bridge represented the unhurried and quaint coastal lifestyle of Topsail Island. In the end, however, the fixed bridge was chosen to accommodate the growth in summer beach traffic.

To build consensus on the project, the NCDOT coordinated with and balanced the concerns of three communities. Stakeholders included proponents of the historic bridge, advocates of the town park adjacent to the bridge, and a business district that could be adversely affected by the project. The project team met early on to identify these stakeholders and develop a public involvement process tailored to these groups.

Early communication consisted of numerous communication styles to meet the needs of different target audiences. Newsletters were sent before the meetings to advertise them and after the meetings to summarize the input and direction of the project. The NCDOT maintained a web page to help keep stakeholders informed.

The team conducted sample surveys each step of the way. The results helped the NCDOT develop alternatives and then eliminate those that were less favorable. The team formed a steering committee, made up of local business owners, residents, and some local officials, to help make decisions on smaller scale items, such as intersection types.

Narrowing Alternatives
The public meetings promoted creativity and project buy-in by allowing residents to sketch potential alternatives, which helped gain their trust. They clearly watched their input being put to use to develop alternatives, which made the process for eliminating alternatives simpler and more engaging.

To refine the process, the project team divided the design study alternatives into three groups: northern, central, and southern. The team gathered input from each public meeting to determine which alternatives were preferred. To increase the quality of the input, the project team eliminated traditional comment forms, which tend to seek general input, and framed questions to clearly define what residents liked and disliked.

Topsail Island BridgeFor each alternative, the team created a three-part visualization board. These enhanced, 3D virtual environments allowed the public to visualize the bridge locations and better understand potential impact. At the beginning of the project, several residents were concerned about a high-level fixed bridge and its potential view impacts. After reviewing the 3D boards, their concerns were minimized and the high-level fixed bridge alternatives gained support.

For the design hearing, the RS&H visualization team produced a drive-through video of the project that focused on the community’s vision and depicted how well the new bridge would fit into the community. This and other enhanced visualizations gave stakeholders a better understanding of the project and created a more positive environment.

At the public hearings, several team members used iPads to share information with interactive features. As attendees approached project displays, comment card stations, and discussion groups, project team members used iPads to show before and after renderings of the new bridge from ten different perspectives. This helped people understand the proposed improvements and provided a great platform from which team members could lead general discussion, answer questions, and seek feedback.

The sound engineering, effective local stewardship, and strong public involvement on this project helped stakeholders come together and make critical decisions to build a new bridge that preserves community standards.