Most transportation agencies would probably consider several hundred public comments on a major transportation project’s environmental assessment to be a pretty good response.
But more than 3,800? And from all parts of the country?
That’s the two-month tally for the Bonner Bridge Replacement Project on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).
“I’ve worked at NCDOT for 15 years, and I’ve never seen a project generate this many comments from the public,” said Drew Joyner, head of the department’s Human Environment Unit, in a statement issued by the agency.
Built in 1963, the 2.5-mile long, 260-span Herbert C. Bonner Bridge is the sole highway link to Hatteras Island and carries as many as 10,000 vehicles a day 65 feet above Oregon Inlet.
While few argue that the bridge is overdue for replacement—especially after it earned a sufficiency rating of 2 in a 2006 structural assessment—addressing the conflicting concerns of mobility, commerce, safety and protection of the island’s fragile environment has made finding consensus on a solution difficult.
Not so to the thousands who offered their input during the public comment period. Ninety-five percent endorsed NCDOT’s recommended $300-million plan to replace the current Bonner Bridge as soon as possible.
The agency would also implement a coastal monitoring program to determine when and how to address long-standing flooding problems along its route through a federally protected wildlife refuge. Those improvements—which would include beach nourishment, road relocation, and elevated structures—and could cost anywhere from $300 million to $1.2 billion, according to NCDOT estimates.
So how did a bridge project on a remote barrier island engender such a passionate, nationwide response?
One reason is the popularity of the Outer Banks itself, which even in a recession-hampered economy still attracts several million visitors from across the country. This summer, several newspapers have reported above-average traffic counts, brightening the area’s economic picture but also adding to motorist frustration and raising fears of gridlock should a hurricane force a fast evacuation.
But the more potentially interesting influence may be the increasing reach of social media, namely a Facebook page set up by a group called the Bridge Moms “to give voice to the fears and concerns of the mothers who have children on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands whose well being is dependent on the lifeline of Herbert C Bonner Bridge.”
Though it should be noted that several of the Moms’ leading figures are also affiliated with well-known Hatteras Island businesses that would certainly benefit from an improved bridge, no one can dispute that the group's message is resonating with other parents justifiably concerned about their family's safety. The Moms' efforts received extensive local media coverage during the summer, and were recognized by NCDOT.
And while the public comment period on the Bonner Bridge project concluded on August 9, the Bridge Moms are not sitting back and enjoying the late-summer sun. They’re encouraging supporters to write letters that will ultimately be forwarded to “First Mom” Michelle Obama. North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue personally made the first delivery of more than 100 letters in mid-August.
Translating this outpouring of input to translate into action—namely FHWA record of decision and construction of a new bridge—will still take months, if not years.
But transportation agencies would do well to prepare for similar Internet-driven mobilizations of public comments, particularly for projects that may be far more controversial than the Bonner Bridge. Thanks to the viral nature of social media, the whole world really is watching.