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New Transportation Secretary Talks About Local Highway, Bridge, and Ferry Issues

February 14, 2013

From the Island Free Press www.islandfreepress.org for more news and information about Hatteras and Ocracoke islands and the rest of the Outer Banks.

New transportation secretary talks about
local highway, bridge, and ferry issues

BY CATHERINE KOZAK

The state’s new transportation   secretary backs the Bonner Bridge project, but he is not so sure about the   Mid-Currituck Bridge. He also doesn’t favor a ferry solution for Oregon   Inlet, but he’s willing to consider it in Currituck.

Some might take it as a good sign   that Anthony J. “Tony” Tata, appointed last month to head the state   Department of Transportation, calls the spot at the north end of Rodanthe   “S-turns,” the name surfers use for the popular surf spot, instead of   “S-curves,” the official name transportation officials call their current   most troublesome hotspot on Highway 12.

In a telephone interview this   week, Tata, 53, who grew up in Virginia Beach, said he has visited the Outer   Banks many times over the years with friends who have relatives here and to   surf.

Hatteras’ own Bert Austin, former   sheriff of Dare County who now lives in Grandy, is one of his close friends,   Tata said, and Austin’s nephew is his best friend.

“I’ve had a special relationship   with the Outer Banks since my childhood, so I understand that the roads and   ferries and shipping are the lifeline for the good folks on the Outer Banks,”   he said. “There’s a lot of key issues out there that we have to take on.”

Tata, a retired Army brigadier   general who served from 2006-2007 as Deputy Commanding General of U.S. forces   in Afghanistan, was fired in September after 20 months as Superintendent of   Schools in Wake County. Supporters say that Tata, hired by Republicans, was a   victim of politics on the newly Democratic-controlled board.

Newly elected Gov. Pat McCrory’s   office said in a statement that Tata’s 28 years of experience in the   military, where he addressed complex transportation challenges involving   ports, highways, airfields and rail, makes him well-suited to the job as   transportation secretary.

Close observers of the NCDOT, an   agency continually under pressure from the public and legislators, might say   that Tata’s ability to work in a war zone gives him the temperament to lead   DOT.

Despite being the subject of   intense media scrutiny for the last two years, Tata spoke in a relaxed and   amiable manner. But he didn’t pretend he knew all the answers.

“As a new secretary, you might   imagine, we’re trying to take a new look at several different projects,” he   said.

When asked about talk in the   legislature of tolling the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry — the busiest ferry   route in the state —he initially responded that “our feeling is that we   should toll it all, or none.”

“I don’t see any reason for the   citizens of the Outer Banks to pay for everything and not the tourist,” he   said.

The toll increases at the Cedar   Island and Swan Quarter routes to Ocracoke are already law, he said, that   will go into effect June 30.

But Tata softened his stance in   response to local objections that contend it would be unfair to toll the   ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke, since, as the only access to the island,   it is akin to a road.

“I think that’s a valid argument,”   he said, “and if there is no other alternative access, it’s technically not a   road, but it is a point of entry.”

Tata dismissed the idea of using   high speed ferries to transport people and vehicles from Oregon Inlet to   Rodanthe, rather than replacing the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, and maintaining   access on Highway 12, as some environmental groups have suggested.

“Ferries,” he said, “are not   without disruption to the environment, also.”

But he said later in the interview   that ferries of some kind are being considered as an option in the   department’s re-evaluation of the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge project.

Tata said that DOT intends to move   forward with the Bonner Bridge construction project that has recently   started, as well as continuing with plans to rebuild and maintain Highway 12.

The DOT plan to replace the bridge   is currently being challenged in federal court by environmental groups.

Any notion of building a 17.5-mile   long bridge that would bypass hotspots in Pea Island, he said, is not   realistic.

“We just can’t afford a billion   dollar bridge,” he said.

“We feel it’s feasible to build   two bridges for $200-$250 million,” he said, referring to spans over Oregon   Inlet and over the new inlet on Pea Island.

Construction of the proposed   Mid-Currituck Bridge from the mainland to Corolla is still being evaluated by   DOT, Tata said, including the possibility of using ferries.

A legislative transportation   committee has questioned whether the state can afford to build the bridge.   DOT engineers have also said that the project is a low priority compared with   other state transportation needs.

“We’re having conversations about   that right now,” he said. Part of the discussion includes a back-up plan to   address traffic congestion if the bridge project is jettisoned.

Tata said that he intends to   “leverage projects to create jobs” and to find ways to increase efficiency of   maintenance of the state’s roads and bridges. Projects scheduled in the TIP,   the state’s transportation plan, are also being evaluated.

“I’m looking at all of it,” he   said, but declined to elaborate. “We’ve got a budget submission in a couple   of weeks.”

As far as the construction of the   U.S. 64 widening project from Columbia to East Lake, Tata said he understood   that the four-lane road was critical to alleviate the traffic bottleneck   during hurricane evacuations.

But when told that residents say   they’ve never experienced a traffic back-up during evacuations — mainly   because it’s not the route tourists favor — and that the road would destroy   their homes, Tata said that there has to be a balance between safety and   heritage.

“That’s something that we’d take a   look at,” he said. “The highway widening is scheduled right now for 2018, so   we have time.”

Tata said he’d like to sit down   with East Lake folks and talk to them, adding that he plans to visit every   transportation division in the state to hold town hall-style meetings.

The date when he’ll be coming to   Dare County has yet to be determined.

“There’s 14 divisions and one of   me,” he said. “I might wait till the weather improves and the surf is up.”

 

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