The new “Jug Handle Bridge’ moves storm-damaged N.C. 12 over the Pamlico Sound
By Kari Pugh
For years, the ocean has been trying to reclaim a stretch of the only road connecting Hatteras Island to the rest of the world.
Now she can have it.
The long-awaited “Jug Handle Bridge” bypasses a narrow stretch of N.C. 12 prone to ocean overwash flooding with a 2.4-mile span over the Pamlico Sound.
But first, there was a celebration. In early April, more than 600 runners participated in the “Run the Rodanthe Bridge 5-mile and 5K race,” followed by a community day for locals to walk and bike the new bridge before it began carrying vehicles.
“We’re celebrating a dream that has finally come true,” Dare County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bob Woodard said at a ribbon cutting before the bridge opened to foot traffic for the day. “This magnificent bridge represents the culmination of a lot of hard work.”
The $145 million bridge now carries N.C. 12 west of the rapidly eroding S-Turns and Mirlo Beach areas, extending between the southern end of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge over the Pamlico Sound into Rodanthe.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation plans to remove the old N.C. 12 and return the land to the refuge on the Pea Island side while keeping the existing N.C. 12 for private property access on the Rodanthe side.
The bridge doesn’t yet have an official name. NCDOT refers to it as the “Rodanthe Bridge” but it’s known locally as the “Jug Handle Bridge,” named for its curved shape jutting out 2,000 feet into the sound. The design, according to transportation officials, minimizes impacts to the refuge, the ocean shoreline, and the community of Rodanthe “while maintaining safe and reliable access for area residents and visitors to southern Hatteras Island.”
The project includes a one-lane roundabout at the end of the old N.C. 12 and relocated N.C. 12 near the wildlife refuge, a traffic calming measure for the summer crowds visiting Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which saw its highest visitation ever last year.
“Roundabouts provide a safer intersection with less potential conflict points — areas where drivers are crossing, merging or leaving a road — and reduce congestion and backups,” NCDOT said in its project webpage.
The battle to keep N.C. 12 from the clutches of the ocean has been going on for years, with federal, state and local governments employing beach nourishment, pavement reconstruction and sandbag embankments to keep the road clear, with only temporary success.
In October 2019, the ocean breached the dunes during the remnants of a tropical storm, closing N.C. 12 from Oregon Inlet to Rodanthe for a weekend and trapping drivers on N.C. 12. A nearby church opened its door for those stuck to wash up, get a meal or nap in the pews as flooding subsided and road crews worked to clear sand from the road.
At the ribbon-cutting, Hatteras Island Commissioner Danny Couch related a story about bygone days, when islanders would have to open their doors and let the flood water flow through, or let fish out.
“Like our ancestors before us, we find solutions to deal with the punches Mother Nature throws our way,” he said.“And so it is with us today – finding long-term, lasting solutions to the waters that so often disrupt our lives.”
The bridge is part of the Bonner Bridge Replacement Project, the last of three new bridges built on Hatteras Island since 2018. The Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge opened on Pea Island in 2018 and the Bonner bridge over Oregon Inlet was replaced with a new span, the Marc Basnight Bridge, in 2019.
Work began on the Jug Handle Bridge in 2018 after NCDOT awarded Flatiron Corp., a Colorado-based infrastructure construction firm, a contract to design and build the span and surrounding infrastructure.
Flatiron partnered with Baltimore-based engineering and construction firm RK&K to solve the challenges of building on a fragile barrier island with limited access to materials, and limited ability to transport them. Crews couldn’t send equipment by barge due to the shallow water in Pamlico sound. Instead, the contractors used a 1,600-foot advancing rail system with overhead gantries and cranes leap-frogging equipment forward as each section of bridge was completed.
The two-lane, 40-foot wide bridge rises 17 feet over the sound and is designed to withstand storm surge, shifting sand and boat collisions, with a 100-year service life.
Woodard called the new span a vital link for Hatteras Island.
“[It is] a pathway to medical care for residents and visitors, a pathway for educational opportunities for young people, and a pathway for economic development, and the tourism revenue that flows in and out of Hatteras Island, which represents an economic impact of over $366 million dollars a year,” he said.