Daily Advance Opinion Piece

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

We’ve long supported construction of the mid-Currituck bridge as a fix for the transportation hurdles between the mainland and Outer Banks. But what we don’t support is holding secret “idea gathering” meetings about the project among officials without the public being invited.

Recently, the N.C. Turnpike Authority hosted such a meeting in Currituck, inviting commissioners from three counties, two state legislators and several other business and county leaders.

The meeting, which sought ideas on how the bridge should be designed, was not advertised to the public.

That didn’t sit well with some residents, who have been following the bridge process for several years.

“I imagine all the pro-bridge folks were there giving their input on what Aydlett, Coinjock and Corolla will be forced to look at every single day if — and that’s a big if — this bridge gets built,” resident Jen Symonds told us. “What sense does it make to have others, not affected by the visual impacts, give input on aesthetics 
of the bridge?”

Symonds rightly questioned why the Turnpike Authority would want to be secretive — intentionally or not — about the meeting. Certainly, adequate public notice would have been easy to do.

But that didn’t happen. Because the group is not a decision-making body, and a majority of commissioners from each county was not present, a quorum did not exist that would have required public notification, according to Amanda Martin, attorney for the N.C. Press Association.

Currituck Commissioner Paul O’Neal said he would have welcomed the public to the meeting, but since the state — not the county — set up the session, he was not aware of who would be attending until he got there.

State Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, said he didn’t know the meeting had not been advertised.

Greer Beaty, communications director for the N.C. Department of Transportation, the agency that oversees the Turnpike Authority, said nothing was decided at the meeting.

“It really was not a meeting intended to come up with long-term decisions that would be set in stone,” she told us. “It was just a starting point to get some ideas.”

The $600 million bridge has been in the planning and discussion stages for more than 10 years. Legislation to build the bridge passed in the General Assembly in 1996.

The bridge will cross the Currituck Sound by connecting Aydlett on mainland Currituck with Corolla on the Outer Banks. It will give northern vacationers a quicker route to the beaches, and provide an extra hurricane evacuation route.

Despite the hefty price tag, the project is still alive, thanks to the controversial votes of Reps. Owens, Tim Spear, D-Washington, and three other House Democrats who gave Republicans enough votes to override Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s budget veto in June in exchange for support of keeping the bridge and other projects in the budget.

The project still needs final approval from DOT. The Turnpike Authority is expected to release its environmental impact statement this month and make its final decision this fall. If those steps are successful, construction would start by next fall, and the span would be scheduled to open by late 2017.

Meanwhile, we implore the Turnpike Authority and local officials to make sure all future meetings about the bridge allow for public input or at least a public presence. Though some meetings may not be legally required to be made public, with a project this size and affecting so many local residents, it is the right thing to do.