The Jug Handle Bridge on Pea Island opened to traffic on Thursday (7/28/22). There was no notice saying the bridge was about to open, simply a quick note from NCDOT and a video showing the first car southbound at 11:40 a.m. Then, 50 minutes later, the northbound lanes opened.
The opening, if delayed by a couple of months, had been anticipated and was certainly welcome. Building the bridge was expensive—$154 million—but ultimately, it was the only solution that made any sense. Keeping NC12 open through the S Curves just north of Rodanthe was becoming more difficult and expensive, and every time the highway was washed out, or sand covered the road, Hatteras Island residents and visitors were effectively isolated with very limited options to get on and off the island.
So, expensive yes. But ultimately, it will prove to be the best option.
The burning question is, though, just what did the taxpayers get for $154 million?
What they got was one heck of a nice bridge. There are quite a number of design features that went into the bridge that make the price tag not quite as bad as it seems.
First of all, it’s a 100-year bridge, meaning it’s designed to withstand the forces of nature for 100 years. There will, of course, be maintenance that will have to be done, but over the course of its lifespan, having the Jug Handle Bridge in place will cost less than continually trying to salvage a land route along one of the most active beaches on the Outer Banks.
The big issue is, though, what is it like driving across that bridge? And honestly, it’s pretty nice.
Coming from the north, it’s seamless. There’s a small bend to the right, and the car is on the bridge.
The road is grooved, so coming off the smooth asphalt of that section of NC12, there is no doubt the car is on the bridge. It’s smooth, but there is a bit of a hum from the tires caused by the grooving of the road.
Driving south, the view is to the west, and the endless expanse of Pamlico Sound is awe-inspiring. There’s nothing to see, really, because it’s all water. This is the largest sound on the east coast, and the nearest land is probably a little-known spot of beach sticking out into Pamlico Sound called Sandy Beach. It’s about 14 miles west of the bridge.
The pavement markings that were the cause of the last delay in opening the bridge to traffic don’t look all that remarkable, but evidently, when the first company laid them down, they did not meet NCDOT standards for reflectivity or quality, and a new contractor had to be found and hired.
At the south end of the bridge in Rodanthe, there is a traffic pattern found nowhere else on the Outer Banks—a roundabout or traffic circle. There was real skepticism when the concept first found its way into the planning documents. It’s still too early to say what will happen over an extended period of heavy traffic, but certainly, in light to moderate traffic, the roundabout works like a dream.
With the bridge acting as a breakwater, the soundside of the north end of Rodanthe seems like a protected cove. Driving north, looking at the waters between the bridge and the shore, there was noticeably less wave action than on the west side of the road.
There is a US Fish & Wildlife parking lot at the north end. It’s a nice parking lot—paved with plenty of parking spaces. There’s a trail that leads out to the beach. It’s a bit of a climb over the dune, but put the effort into it. Right now, the beach it leads to is still an unknown treasure. Wide with soft sand, it is wonderful.
Looking south, the houses of Rodanthe dance above the sand two miles away…and for surfers, that’s the rub. With the opening of the Jug Handle Bridge, easy access to the S Curves and one of the finest surfing areas on the Outer Banks is gone.
Barricades at the bridge’s north end and north end of Rodanthe stop all traffic from using the old highway. The road will remain intact for a few months to allow emergency access to Cape Hatteras Electric Coop crews for line repairs. But right now, they’re putting power lines in conduits under the bridge, and the road will be removed when that project is completed.
There is nothing to stop a determined surfer from carrying a board a mile or so along the beach, but that’s what it’s going to take to surf the S Curves.
The S Curves may not even be a prime surfing area for much longer. The forces at play in the ocean that have created the legendary break along that stretch of shoreline are the same forces that make keeping the old NC12 open north of Rodanthe a task that was ultimately doomed to failure.
No one knows when it will happen or even what it will look like, but at some point in time, that stretch of beach will be breached by the sea, and the waters of Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean will join.