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Bonner Bridge Progress Hits Legal Roadblocks

By Jeff Hampton
The Virginian-Pilot
© December 7, 2013

HATTERAS ISLAND, N.C.

State and local officials loudly blamed environmental groups’ legal battles for this week’s sudden closure of the deteriorating Herbert C. Bonner Bridge for safety reasons, cutting off this island from the mainland.

Those battles have delayed indefinitely construction of a replacement bridge.

And those battles will continue long into the new year, at least.

The first paperwork – in the form of opening written arguments – is expected to be filed Monday in an appeal by the Southern Environmental Law Center against a federal judge’s approval of the replacement bridge, said Derb Carter, its senior attorney.

Final written arguments aren’t due in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals until Feb. 19, according to online court records. Oral arguments aren’t expected to be scheduled until later in the year, and the judges will deliberate after that.

State officials closed the 50-year-old Bonner Bridge with little warning Tuesday, trapping residents and visitors on both sides of Oregon Inlet until emergency ferries began running the next day. They awarded a 90-day, $1.6 million contract to shore up supports exposed by underwater erosion.

The lawsuit and its appeal lambasted by officials almost certainly will go on longer.

They involve two environmental groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center. The Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association contend that the planned $216 million replacement bridge – which would run nearly 3 miles parallel to the current span – would harm wildlife and estuarine habitat, and be continually subject to erosion problems.

Instead, the groups favor a 17-mile bridge that would arc 4 miles into the Pamlico Sound before landing in Rodanthe. It would be the second-longest bridge in the United States, according to court records.

The shorter bridge “ignores the obvious and persistent problems of N.C. 12,” Carter said. “The ocean will continue to scour the bridges and erode the road.”

The state’s plan is to build bridges wherever the ocean breaks through the highway, a piecemeal method that is not allowed by law, he argued.

“They build a bridge and then figure out the rest later,” he said.

The state, meanwhile, maintains that the shorter bridge would not harm the Outer Banks habitat, which attracts rare wildlife such as the piping plover shorebird. The longer bridge, it says, would cost too much – more than $1 billion – and would bypass the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a popular stopping point for many tourists on N.C. 12.

“The parallel bridge is the most economical and environmentally sound option,” said Mike Charbonneau, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

Work on the new span was set to begin early this year and be finished by 2015.

A Bonner Bridge replacement first was proposed more than 20 years ago, near the end of the bridge’s expected 30-year lifespan. It has undergone multiple studies, including a 2010 environmental impact statement that ran to more than 3,000 pages. That study was evaluated by 18 federal agencies, 11 state agencies and 14 local governments or agencies, according to court records.

The environmental groups sued to stop the project in July 2011. More than two years of dueling paperwork later, a U.S. District Court judge sided with the state in mid-September. That prompted the SELC to counter with an appeal Oct. 1.

The SELC filed a separate petition with state officials in August contending that the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources should not have issued a permit last year to the highway department to build a new bridge. The arguments are essentially the same as in the federal case.

The state case is in the discovery phase, where both sides are sharing evidence, said Noelle Talley, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Justice. No date has been set for a trial before an administrative law judge, she said. The Office of Administrative Hearings hears cases where people challenge actions of state agencies, among other things.

The longer-bridge idea isn’t new. Many state and local officials a decade ago also supported a longer bridge, from the northern shore of Oregon Inlet to Rodanthe, Dare County Commissioner Allen Burrus said.

But environmental concerns pushed the bridge route farther out into the Pamlico Sound, and the cost rose exponentially, he said.

“It became a nightmare,” he said.

A quieter announcement came Thursday as emergency ferries shuttled back and forth and plans were made to ship equipment and supplies to the ailing Bonner Bridge.

The state awarded a $79.7 million contract to build a 2.1-mile bridge on N.C. 12 over the new inlet north of Rodanthe that Hurricane Irene formed in 2011. The bridge would be built alongside an existing temporary one and not disrupt traffic, according to a news release.

The replacement would open in spring 2016.

The SELC had no comment on that bridge.

Jeff Hampton, 252-338-0159,jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com

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