An end may be in sight to the long-running dispute over replacing the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, with word that the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) has begun talks with the conservation groups whose lawsuits have repeatedly stymied the project.

Described by NCDOT as “active, confidential discussions” with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which represents Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the talks are aimed at achieving what years of court battles have not—allow the agency to construct a new 2.4-mile bridge across Oregon Inlet to replace existing the 50-year-old 260-span prestressed concrete girder structure while also satisfying environmental concerns about the long-term future of an 11-mile stretch of State Route 12 encompassed by the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

The talks, which NCDOT says have been underway for more than a year, appeared to intensify in August following a Federal Appeals Court ruling that blocked the agency from moving forward with its $216 million replacement project until all potential environmental outcomes were considered. However, the court also rejected the litigants’ contention that a new bridge and other remedial measures for Route 12 on its current alignment in the Refuge could not be implemented in phases as planned by NCDOT.

A video animation of the 2.4-mile-long bridge proposed for Oregon Inlet. (Video via NCDOT's Youtube channel.)

The mixed decision apparently left both sides sensing that compromise had become more acceptable to the prospect of more years in the courtroom.

State Transportation Secretary Tony Tata, whose comments about SELC and its clients have rarely been charitable, says that while NCDOT remains committed to a new Oregon Inlet bridge, he considers  these recent proactive discussions are a positive step toward a permanent solution.”

SELC’s adamant stance that any new road construction within the Refuge was potentially disruptive and economically wasteful appears to have softened as well.

“We are continuing to work together with NCDOT to resolve this matter with a reliable, long-term solution that ensures the safety of the traveling public and avoids the problems that currently threaten N.C. 12,” said Derb Carter, Director of SELC’s North Carolina offices.

Both NCDOT and the conservation groups agree that something needs to be done with the Bonner Bridge, the sole highway link for Hatteras Island’s 3,500 full-time residents and tens of thousands of tourists who are the mainstay of the local economy. The Bridge’s deteriorating condition has undergone more intensive scrutiny in recent years, including a two-week closure last December following the discovery of accelerated scour around two bents.

In addition, sections of Route 12 within the Pea Island Refuge are regularly damaged by storm-driven overwash, a problem that has intensified in recent years and has been addressed on a situational basis by NCDOT.

SELC has countered that the only responsible way to fulfill the nation’s mandate to preserve the Refuge’s fragile ecosystem would be to bypass it entirely with a 17-mile bridge in Pamlico Sound from the north side of Oregon Inlet to the village of Rodanthe. Estimates for such a project typically begin at $1 billion.

One potential compromise strategy reported by the Raleigh News & Observer would call for bypassing the most active area of erosion just north of Rodanthe with a seven-mile Sound-side bridge. That plan would supersede NCDOT’s original idea to elevate a shorter section of Route 12 with a $79.6 million bridge that might well wind up in the ocean surf in 50 years should current erosion patterns continue.

Both sides’ apparent commitment to finding a mutually agreeable middle ground—sandy though it may be—may be best evidenced by the final line in NCDOT’s statement, which says no additional announcements are forthcoming “until conversations are complete and the issue is resolved.”

That could mean that late-season beach barbecues won’t be the only source of “white smoke” on Hatteras Island this fall.