By William F. West
Staff Writer

The Daily Advance

Monday, August 28, 2017

An attorney for the environmental group opposing construction of the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge said a lawsuit is an option to block it.

“It’s definitely not off the table,” Kym Hunter, an attorney in the Chapel Hill office of the Charlottesville, Va.-based Southern Environmental Law Center, said recently.

Local officials apparently think so too.

During a recent meeting of the Currituck Chamber of Commerce’s Governmental Affairs Committee, Chamber President Josh Bass said he believes the Southern Environmental Law Center will file suit to stop the bridge project.

Allen Moran, new N.C. Department of Transportation Division 1 board member, was asked about Bass’ assertion. He, too, thinks the SELC lawsuit on the bridge project is likely.

“If not to stop it, to maybe change it, yes,” Moran said.

The N.C. Department of Transportation’s statewide master plan calls for a proposed seven-mile, tolled crossing over the Currituck Sound between Aydlett and Corolla. NCDOT has estimated the cost of the project at $489 million and anticipates releasing a record of decision on the project by next April. The record of decision is generally considered the final step in the process of preparing an environmental impact statement for a road project.

Hunter said any decision about whether there will be lawsuit on the bridge project will depend on whether NCDOT complies with the law.

“And that we don’t know yet because they haven’t completed all their environmental documents,” she said. “So, that will be something that we will have to determine at the appropriate time.”

Asked what laws specifically NCDOT needs to follow, Hunter said they include the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Coastal Management Act.

Hunter said her organization has encouraged the NCDOT to take a second look at non-bridge alternatives, particularly since so much has changed the past five years when a previous environmental document on the bridge project was prepared. She said those changes include increased costs and changing traffic forecasts.

For example, the SELC believes the Mid-Currituck Bridge will now cost as much as $600 million, not the $489 million NCDOT has projected. Hunter said the SELC’s estimate is based on its review of an NCDOT draft document and leads it to conclude the bridge shouldn’t be built.

“We don’t believe the bridge is necessary or affordable,” she said.

Hunter said she also believes NCDOT needs to prepare a supplemental environmental document on the bridge project and put its text out for public comment.

“And so far DOT has decided not to do that,” she said. “We do think that’s illegal and we’ve made that pretty clear in a letter that we’ve sent to them.”

She was referring to a 61-page document the Southern Environmental Law Center mailed to NCDOT in December.

Hunter said the SELC, supported by residents opposed to the bridge, would still like NCDOT to consider non-bridge alternatives like improving the intersection of U.S. Highway 158 and N.C. Highway 12 in Dare County.

The SELC and residents opposed to the bridge also would like to see minimal widening of N.C. 12 northward from U.S. 158 and conversion of intersections with traffic signals to roundabouts. They also would like to see more incentives offered so that vacationers could check out of their rental cottages at more staggered times. They’d also like to see an “electronic key” program to eliminate vacationers’ unnecessary trips to rental offices. The SELC believes both would help reduce the volume of traffic on N.C. 158 and 12 that is spurring demand for the bridge.

“We think if there could be some incentives to help move that along a little faster, that could be a lot more cost-effective and better for everyone,” Hunter said.

She said the SELC has had conversations with NCDOT but seen no indications the agency plans to put out a new study for public review. The agency also has not signaled it plans to address the SELC’s concerns, she said.

Tim Hass, a spokesman for NCDOT, said a project team continues to review comments and other materials provided by the SELC about the bridge project. The study team is also reevaluating and updating previous studies of the project, he said.

He said the project originated from a request from local officials, who submitted the project for consideration as part of North Carolina’s process of scoring and ranking transportation projects to determine which ones receive funding.

“The Mid-Currituck Bridge is the top transportation priority for the local communities and is being developed by the department accordingly,” he said.