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Political Shift Could Put $1 Billion N.C. Project in Limbo

Posted to: News North Carolina

By Jeff Hampton
The Virginian-Pilot
© November 14, 2010

CURRITUCK, N.C.

Opponents of a new $1 billion bridge over the Currituck Sound have new momentum after Republicans promising to cut spending won control of the North Carolina General Assembly on Nov. 2.

Under the direction of the North Carolina Turnpike Authority, the controversial bridge – debated for more than 20 years – appeared on its way to construction using a combination of tolls, private investment and public money.

The state set aside $15 million a year, called gap funding, to make up for an expected shortfall from tolls and private money. Annual state funding is to increase to $28 million in 2013 and continue for as long as 40 years. Without it, the project could stall.

Democrat Marc Basnight, who pushed for bridge funding, will no longer serve as president pro tempore of the state Senate when Republicans take charge. The General Assembly will be looking for ways to close a $3 billion to $4 billion budget deficit next year.

“The reality of the political situation on the ground is the state is hurting for money and looking to cut spending – and a billion-dollar bridge is a good place to start,” said John Woodard, a Republican who lost in a close House race against Democrat Bill Owens.

But bridge gap funding is not coming from the general fund and would not resolve a budget deficit, Owens said.

“I don’t see where it would have any effect.”

Owens believes the bridge will be built. “I think we’re too far along now,” he said.

Cost estimates on the bridge range from $600 million to more than $1 billion, depending on a variety of construction alternatives.

One option includes a seven-mile-long bridge connecting Corolla to the mainland in Aydlett. It would span the five-mile-wide sound and two miles of swamp before connecting to U.S. 158 south of Coinjock.

Another option has the bridge ending in Aydlett with a road continuing through the swamp to U.S. 158.

“They pushed this project because it was Marc Basnight’s project,” said Jennifer Symonds, who has helped lead a citizens group opposing the bridge. “He is why this thing was a high priority. It is not a high priority in the state.”

State legislators have backed the bridge because the local board has supported it. During the primary and general elections, voters ousted three Democrats on the Currituck County Board of Commissioners, including bridge proponent Gene Gregory, making all seven members Republican.

“There is still a commitment to the bridge,” said Owen Etheridge, a member of the Board of Commissioners.

The Environmental Protection Agency expressed several concerns about the effects of a bridge on water quality, wildlife, the swamp and farmland. It also noted the state has underestimated maintenance costs.

“Shrinking transportation dollars and increased maintenance and repair costs for infrastructure in areas that are very vulnerable to severe weather conditions such as high winds and storm surges and salt air and water should be a very important consideration for decision-makers,” wrote Heinz Mueller in a June letter to the Turnpike Authority. He is an EPA chief in Atlanta.

The EPA prefers widening existing roads, he wrote.

In May, the state released a draft environmental impact statement, a major step in the approval process.

A final environmental impact statement, scheduled for a September release but still unavailable, is expected to pick one of the several construction alternatives.

“It’s taking a little longer to get resolution on a preferred alternative,” said Jennifer Harris, director of planning and environmental studies for the N.C. Turnpike Authority. The project has not changed, she said.

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

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