The Virginian-Pilot newspaper has begun a four-part series looking at the diverse, often contradictory challenges involved with maintaining Route 12 on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

As the barrier islands’ only highway link to the mainland, Route 12 is both a lifeline for year-round residents and a conduit for thousands of tourists (and their associated buying power) who flock to the beaches each year.

And as the first article in the series notes, Route 12 is also a piece of infrastructure that defies nature.

In some remote stretches of Route 12, it’s easy to think that time stands still. But the islands and the sand dunes that separate the highway from the Atlantic Ocean are part of a dynamic ecosystem, gradually eroding and reforming as part of the Outer Banks’ gradual migration westward.

But as with most types of infrastructure, however, Route 12 is fixed, leaving it vulnerable to continual pounding by overwash from hurricanes, nor’easters, and other stormseven those that may track hundreds of miles offshore.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) is always ready to respond with fresh sand and asphaltand, as was the case after Hurricane Irene, a new bridge. Doing all this costs money. And it’s a fair question to ask how long NCDOT can afford continually investing in what appears to be a losing band-aid battle with Mother Nature, whose win-loss record would be the envy of any sports team.

However, it’s not a question easily answered. Though NCDOT has made a significant investment in its ongoing effort to find viable long-term solutions to the Route 12 condundrum, deciding on what to do, when to do it, and who pays for it will require reconciling a spectrum of interests and emotions as diverse as the Outer Banks’ ecosystem itself.

The still-simmering controversy and legal battles over the new Bonner Bridge across Oregon Inlet, for example, demonstrates that constructing a new structure is a far easier proposition than bridging schisms among residents, tourists, environmentalists, business owners, scientists, government agencies, and politicians.

Meanwhile, as the issue is vigorously debated in courtrooms, beachside bars, legislatures, and the Internet, Route 12 has only the dunes and the ocean for company as it silently awaits the inevitable next assault.

Part 1 "The Threat" ( published 5/5/13)

Part 2 "Promise and Plight" (published 5/6/13)

Part 3 "The Cost and Value of Access to a Barrier Island" (published 5/7/13)

Part 4 "Lots of Options, But Any Good Ones?" (published 5/8/13)