In a Jan. 1 Point of View article, Stan Riggs and Julie Youngman disagreed with the current plans to replace the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet and instead called for such alternatives as a 17-mile bridge or more ferries. The current approach remains the best one.
The state will build a bridge parallel to the existing one, maintain N.C. 12 through Pea Island and along Hatteras Island, and elevate portions of N.C. 12 in "hotspots" vulnerable to storm washouts. This responsible plan means the bridge would be replaced sooner, and the elevated portions would be built as needed.
Riggs and Youngman say this approach will not work because of sea level rise and other factors. In fact, a panel of national experts on sea level rise generally agreed in 2008 that the current approach was actually the most practical one given the constraints of the area. This plan also allows all agencies to monitor changes and make decisions based on actual future conditions, instead of locking in decisions now based on long-term forecasts and uncertainty.
The writers' discussion of alternatives did not mention costs, safety risks or destruction to our environment and economy. A ferry system is not realistic. Hatteras Island is more than 70 miles long. The 3-mile ferry ride from Hatteras to Ocracoke takes 40 minutes. How long would it take a ferry to travel the island's length if, as the writers predict, N.C. 12 no longer exists? In 1991 officials discussed a ferry alternative at a cost of over $400 million ($1.2 billion in today's dollars), but determined that using ferries would not meet current or future traffic demands.
The 17-mile-long-bridge alternative into Pamlico Sound costs over $2 billion. Only about a 10th of that amount is available. Construction cannot begin until the funding is secured, so a replacement will be delayed indefinitely if we continue advocating for the long bridge.
Construction of the parallel bridge is more feasible and fiscally responsible. It also can be achieved sooner, which is critical considering Bonner Bridge's poor condition. And it would allow N.C. 12 upgrades to be funded in affordable phases. Our government must spend within reasonable means, and the taxpayer must be considered in these discussions.
Bonner Bridge is the only vehicle connector between the northern Outer Banks and Hatteras Island. In emergency situations, evacuating thousands of people on a two-lane, 17-mile bridge on short notice in pre-hurricane conditions would present a greater risk to motorists. The long bridge also would damage critical fish and shellfish habitat and drain stormwater runoff pollutants equal to runoff from 1,000 homes and driveways into one of our nation's most sensitive and important estuary systems.
The writers claim that Pea Island, as it narrows and shifts, ultimately cannot support N.C. 12. Elevating portions of N.C. 12 will, in fact, address the most problematic hotspot areas, including Pea Island. The shifting sands mean that these hotspots may eventually become inlets or open water. If predictions of Pea Island's fate are correct, over many years this project would end up as several short bridges in the ocean, connecting small islands like the Chesapeake Bay Bridge instead of one long bridge into the sound. If Riggs and Youngman want to build over water instead of barrier islands, why do they prefer to degrade pristine sound waters?
Multiple alternatives have been studied since 1990, and we are finally nearing construction on the one approach that is endorsed by both the state and federal governments. We must proceed with the parallel bridge for the safety of our people, the culture and economy of our coast, and the protection of our environment.
The writer is president pro tem of the state Senate. The length limit on letters was waived to permit a fuller response.