Faced with the near-certainty of spending millions on storm-related road repair work on Outer Banks for the foreseeable future, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) hopes to put some of their troubles behind themor rather, beneath themby elevating a particularly vulnerable section of State Route 12, the barrier island’s sole major highway.

The agency announced on October 10 that it would seek bids for a 2.4-mile, $124.2 million structure that would lift Route 12 as much as 32.8 feet above the gradually eroding shoreline in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on Hatteras Island. The existing at-grade section includes a temporary steel bridge erected when Hurricane Irene’s storm surge cut a new inlet into the narrow barrier island in 2011.

According to the FHWA’s record of decision for the project, the bridge would include two 12-ft lanes with 8-ft shoulders and include 110- to 120-ft main spans, with 60-ft approach spans. The support piers would provide 15.8 ft of clearance above the mean high water level at its highest point.

Because the bridge will be located on the coastal side of Route 12’s existing right of way, continued shoreline erosion will eventually leave the structure in the Atlantic Ocean surf. What happens after thatwhenever it happenswill likely depend on the state of the regularly storm-battered island, resources, and other factors. Research indicates that Hatteras Island is migrating toward the North Carolina mainland at a rate of five to 22 feet per year.

NCDOT expects to award the contract in early December, with the expected four-year construction process starting as early as January 2014. That schedule could be altered, however, by the outcome of an ongoing legal challenge by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) over NCDOT’s $218.3 million plan to replace the nearby Bonner Bridge, which carries Route 12 over Oregon Inlet. 

On October 1, the SELC formally appealed a September 16 federal district court ruling in favor of the agency’s strategy to replace the half-century old structure with a new high bridge at the same location. The SELC counters that the approach is “piecemeal” and doesn’t fully address all the safety and environmental aspects of surface transportation in the highly dynamic ecosystem, as required by federal law.

Because the Pea Island project is a component of NCDOT’s overall strategy for Route 12 on Hatteras Island, it too may face a court challenge.

Coincidentally, the Outer Banks has been on the receiving end of a slow-moving coastal storm that has hovered over the Mid-Atlantic states for most of the week. Other than occasional periods of high water on Route 12, no overwash damage has been reported.