Since its completion in 1957, the current renovation of the Heide Trask Drawbridge is the most comprehensive in the bascule bridge’s 56 years of service. With the overhaul of the bridge’s mechanical components, electrical system, control system, bridge tender house and the first replacement of the steel grid, North Carolina Department of Transportation Division 3 bridge program manager Amanda Glynn said the project would greatly extend the structure’s life.
“Technology is getting better and, with the project we are doing right now, we are truly getting almost a brand new bridge,” Glynn said. “We will get another 30-40 years out of this system we are installing now.”
However, the question of what will happen at the end of those 30-40 years is what retired engineer and Wrightsville Beach resident Harold King requested officials from the town of Wrightsville Beach begin discussing with NCDOT. Per the request of Mayor Pro Tem Bill Sisson, King’s letter to the town was included for discussion on the Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen’s agenda on Feb. 14.
“They are doing work to renovate it but that will have a limited life, so then they will be doing more work,” King said on Tuesday, Feb. 26. “It has caused a big problem getting on and off the island with the construction work. ... This is the only way on and off the island; we have no alternative.”
For King, one solution would see NCDOT consider another bridge onto the island to guard against a crisis if something were to happen to the drawbridge.
“If that bridge did not work for some lengthy period of time … past a few days, it would kill the business community on the beach,” King said. “I think, personally, we are years past asking DOT to begin looking at this.”
Glynn said adding another crossing could be a possibility in the future, but that it would be difficult to secure the rights of way necessary considering the amount of development on Wrightsville Beach and in Wrightsville Sound. To her knowledge, Glynn said there have been no discussions within the NCDOT about such a project or the replacement of the Heide Trask Drawbridge.
“Because that is the only way on and off the island that presents a huge challenge when you are talking about a replacement,” Glynn said.
One reason why King suggested the town begin discussing the long range plans for access to Wrightsville Beach is because the process for new bridge construction can be lengthy.
“You’ve got a public input time period, a design time period, then you got a right of way acquisition time period and then a construction time period … those are usually 10-20 year processes,” said NCDOT resident engineer Kerry Cross.
Although the Heide Trask Drawbridge is 56 years old, Glynn said its design is not outdated, adding that a similar double leaf bascule bridge was built in Elizabeth City recently.
“Really a lot of the new drawbridges I’ve seen being built are that same style,” she said. “I would imagine that if any future bridge was built they would probably be looking at going back to something very similar.”
Like the addition of another bridge, the prospect of moving to a high-rise bridge would create a host of problems with right of way acquisition and planning, Glynn said.
“That is really a difficult thing to do in a place like that because to do a high-rise bridge you need an incredible amount of length to get at the minimum of 65 feet high over the Intracoastal Waterway,” she said. “So that really restricts what you can do with a structure like that.”
Adding to the merits and historical significance of the Heide Trask Drawbridge is the fact that it is the only bridge left in North Carolina with a Hopkins drive system, Glynn said. Patented by L.O. Hopkins of Nashville, Tenn. in 1936, the Hopkins drive system was designed to simplify the raising and alignment of high-speed operating machinery like the drawbridge by linking the system’s main pinion to the center rack of the folding leaves. All renovations in the NCDOT’s current project have been tailored to preserve the unique system and its historical significance.