A better option for Hatteras

Posted to: Guest Columns Opinion

 By Derb Carter
The Virginian-Pilot
© December 16, 2012

Everyone agrees we need a safe, reliable transportation option to Hatteras Island.

That need is particularly evident now. Storms have repeatedly overwashed N.C. 12, opened new inlets and disrupted transportation to the island. Hatteras is shifting and changing, as barrier islands inevitably do. Any reliable transportation route must accommodate continual movement and change.

Nine years ago, all state and federal agencies with authority over bridge construction agreed that a longer bridge, bypassing areas of Hatteras Island prone to washout, was the best choice to replace the aging Bonner Bridge. The N.C. Department of Transportation said that a new, longer bridge could be open to traffic by 2010.

But, in a 2003 letter to the department, Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Commission, objected to the plan. He advocated instead for a short replacement bridge tied to the same vulnerable stretch of N.C. 12. Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippet responded that replacing the Bonner Bridge in place was “no longer viable” because of the erosion that plagued N.C. 12 and cut off access.

Dare County officials prevailed. Former Gov. Mike Easley directed NCDOT to halt work on the longer bridge plan and develop a plan that Dare County would support.

With Dare County’s backing, the department proposed a plan already deemed not viable: Replace the Bonner Bridge in its current location and figure out later maintenance and access along the rapidly eroding section of N.C. 12 to Rodanthe. NCDOT noted that “the county is willing to take the risk that Bonner Bridge might deteriorate to the point that it would be closed to traffic before the new bridge is completed.”

We now know how well “figuring it out later” works.

Today, neither Dare County nor NCDOT has a permanent plan for N.C. 12 south of the bridge. Even small storms and high tides close the road and cut off access, a process that will repeat for the foreseeable future. Road access was cut for nearly two months last year, and six weeks and counting this year, with even a temporary solution weeks or months away.

With funds available, NCDOT, the Federal Highway Administration and Dare County officials should reconsider the longer-bridge alternative deemed the best option years ago. That proposal would replace the Bonner Bridge and provide reliable access for Hatteras Island by bypassing new inlets and eroding areas of N.C. 12. It would be an investment in Hatteras that gives its communities a stable, long-term solution.

Or NCDOT could consider high-speed vehicle and passenger ferries to connect the communities on the Outer Banks with the mainland, a unique option never seriously evaluated.

Funding is a matter of priorities. In March 2012, NCDOT lowered its estimate to construct the longer bridge to between $569 million and $625 million. Funds could come from four sources.

NCDOT has already slated $476 million for the project, $244 million for the proposed replacement bridge, plus $232 million for N.C. 12 reconstruction. The balance could come from abandoning the unnecessary Mid-Currituck Bridge project (slated for $28 million per year for 40 years) or abandoning or deferring the unpopular and unnecessary four-lane expansion of U.S. 64 through mainland Dare County (allocated cost: $370 million). Expansion of this segment of U.S. 64 is not justified by traffic projections. It’s destructive to wetlands, and East Lake residents oppose it.

From these sources alone, NCDOT would have adequate funds to invest in a longer bridge for Hatteras that would provide durable and dependable access.

NCDOT was right in 2003, as is all too clear today. A long-term solution must avoid the perpetual washouts that plague N.C. 12 to provide safe and reliable access for Hatteras.

Derb Carter is senior attorney and director of the North Carolina offices at the Southern Environmental Law Center.