Connecting Surf City in North Carolina

NCDOT delivers a new bridge to a city divided by the Intracoastal Waterway

By Julia Edinger

Photos courtesy of NCDOT

The town of Surf City, North Carolina witnessed an astounding transformation of a longstanding bridge that has long held the city together. Surf City is an especially unique place to live; as part of the town is located on the mainland and the other part is located on Topsail Island, this bridge serves as a critical point of connection.

Until recently, a swing bridge that was built in 1954 connected the two parts of Surf City. Decades after being built, the steel-truss swing-span bridge was deemed to be structurally deficient. It was no longer sufficient for the people living and working in Surf City. This led to the creation of a new way of traversing the Intracoastal Waterway.

A high-level concrete bridge was the solution, and in September of 2016, the project began. As a result of the strong partnership between the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) as the project’s owner and Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Inc. (BBII) as the prime contractor, and with the innovative design of RS&H, the bridge would open to traffic two years later in December 2018 — reaching completion nine months ahead of schedule.

The high-level concrete bridge replaced a swing bridge built in 1954.

“A challenge was extended by NCDOT Leadership to accelerate project delivery, and this project met the challenge,” explained Trevor Carroll, District Engineer of NCDOT.

N.C. 210 is the 26-mile-long island’s only other point of connection to the mainland. The swing bridge would open regularly for water traffic, causing frequent traffic backups on the highway. Prior to building the new Surf City Bridge, Topsail Island was difficult to access, detering many Surf City residents from visiting a beloved part of their town, and even posing a danger in terms of restricted access in a state of an emergency.

From the beginning of the project, open forums were held to discuss a wide range of topics about the project’s design.

There were design challenges from the start that the project team had to deal with. Going into the project, a water work moratorium prohibited certain activity that would cause disturbances.

“This put a time constraint on our temporary work trestle installation and our drilled pier casing installation,” Carroll explained. “To compound this time constraint, we found asbestos in a building that was to be removed by the contract.”

These challenges added weeks to the project’s timeline, but the team, dedicated to creating this new connection, persisted and overcame the hurdles.

The project was completed ahead of schedule as the result of a motivated team that came together to achieve it.

“Our prime contractors and subcontractors provided extra labor and equipment to work double shifts and weekends,” Carroll explained.

The project’s design was also changed in early stages in order to protect the environment. By increasing the span length, the project team was able to limit negative impacts to the subaquatic vegetation areas in the shallow areas of neighboring creeks.

The vitality of collaboration efforts of the parties involved cannot be understated to the speed or success of this project. The involvement of external stakeholders, for example, helped to ensure the project’s success. These stakeholders included elected officials from nearby towns, business owners, and other community stakeholders – both public and private – that would be impacted by the project. By having people vested in the community provide input, the project team could ensure that it would be practical not just in design but also in its functionality for the public.

The partnership between NCDOT, RS&H, and Balfour Beatty made the project a successful one for Surf City residents.

From the beginning of the project, open forums were held to discuss a wide range of topics about the project’s design, from location to appearance, that helped the team create a plan. Designing infrastructure specifically to meet the needs of the community it is built in helps the project to become a part of the community.

While that may seem out of the ordinary, the swing bridge that was replaced by Surf City Bridge was beloved by the town. NCDOT recognized that connection.

“NCDOT and Balfour Beatty understood the sentimental relationship that the Town of Surf City had for our Swing Bridge,” said Mayor Doug Medlin in a letter to Surf City residents. “We were given the turn bridge control panel and key as well as the cornerstone from when the bridge was first constructed. These items will be displayed in the new Surf City Town Hall as a historical memorial of the Surf City Swing Bridge.”

The previous swing bridge caused traffic delays that could hinder emergency services between the island and the mainland.

Prior to the NCDOT’s bid, they held constructability meetings in order to create a plan for the design that would work well when put in place. There were discussions of alternative intersection designs to see what would work best for Surf City. Consistent communication with external stakeholders on the impact and the status of the project as it moved forward helped make sure that it would be a functional part of the community.

By increasing the design’s span length, negative impacts to vegetation were limited.

Previously, Surf City residents had to decide whether to avoid Topsail Island during tourist season or risk the traffic congestion; now, with the new Surf City Bridge, visitors and residents alike will be able to cross the Intracoastal Waterway with ease. With the new bridge, emergency services will no longer risk being hindered by a bridge opening at the wrong time and causing traffic backups. Businesses no longer have to be concerned about traffic from the bridge interfering with travel or causing expensive delays.

“To sum it up, accessibility has been greatly improved,” concluded Carroll.

The community will appreciate the thoughtfulness in the bridge’s design. The project features a 10-foot-wide multi-use path, allowing families to walk across the bridge in the afternoon, or even have an evening bike ride over the water.

The bridge includes a multi-use path for the community to use.

While the swing bridge will be remembered fondly by the people of Surf City, the new bridge was a necessary improvement that has renewed a seemingly lost connection between the island and the mainland.

Julia Edinger is an Assistant Editor for American Infrastructure Magazine. She can be reached at

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