After years of litigation, dueling studies, and finger-pointing, the combatants in the long-running dispute over replacing the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge on North Carolina’s Outer Banks have finally found common ground. And, it’s the kind you can build on.
On June 15, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and other agencies finalized a settlement agreement with two environmental groups that will allow a long-planned replacement of the 52-year old, 2.7-mile span across Oregon Inlet to move forward.
Part of the sole highway linking tourism-dependent Hatteras Island with the mainland, the 260-span prestressed concrete girder bridge is well into overtime as far its intended design life is concerned, with several of its support piers vulnerable to scour—including one that closed the bridge for two weeks in 2013—as well as the occasional vessel collision.
NCDOT awarded a $215.8 million design-build contract in 2011 to PCL Civil Constructors and HDR Engineering to construct a replacement structure parallel to the existing Bonner Bridge. But that move was quickly countered by a project-blocking federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) on behalf of the National Wildlife Refuge Association and Defenders of Wildlife.
The suit contended that NCDOT’s plan failed to meet its obligation under federal law to address frequent washout and erosion problems on an adjoining 12-mile stretch of Route 12 that lies within the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on Hatteras Island. A better option, the plaintiffs said, was to bypass that area entirely with a 17-mile long structure in adjacent Pamlico Sound, an alternative with an estimated cost of at least $1 billion.
Though the court battle idled the replacement project, Nature remained quite busy.
Storms both named and anonymous have repeatedly sent ocean waves crashing into Hatteras Island’s beaches and across Route 12, exacerbating what NCDOT calls overwash “hotspots” that require repeated repair, regrading, and repaving.
The most famous intrusion came in the fall of 2011, when Hurricane Irene severed Route 12 with a new inlet, requiring installation of an emergency bridge that is still in place, even though the inlet is now typically dry.
Another rapidly eroding area was due to be spanned by a 2.4-mile elevated structure within Route 12’s current alignment. Given the island’s current erosion rate of 5 to 22 ft per year, however, that structure might well have been in the surf in a matter of decades.
Under the new agreement, that project has been cancelled. NCDOT now will pursue options for a “jug handle” structure to carry Route 12 across Pamlico Sound to the village of Rodanthe, thereby avoiding some of the most troublesome erosion hotspots.
Once certain administrative and permitting tasks are complete, SECL will drop its lawsuits. NCDOT estimates it will then take another three years before the new Bonner Bridge is ready.
Much can happen in that time span. Just one major storm could easily disrupt access to the Outer Banks for months. But for Hatteras Island residents who depend on the Bonner Bridge to bring tourists to their beaches and businesses, at least something will be happening outside of a courtroom for a change.
Compromise on the Bonner Bridge project hasn't dimmed environmentalists' vision of a long bridge alterantive.