Engineers for the state Department of Transportation, scrambling to mend a fragile Outer Banks road ripped open by Hurricane Irene, are considering a quick-fix combination that would fill several gaps in the road and cover the biggest one - a new inlet that severed the island itself - with a temporary bridge.
A Chapel Hill environmental lawyer said Thursday that DOT engineers aired the proposal in meetings with state and federal regulators whose approval will be needed for whatever steps DOT takes to repair N.C. 12 on Hatteras Island.
DOT would build two permanent bridges later, after the highway is patched and reopened to traffic for vacationers and the island's 2,500 full-time residents, according to Derb Carter, who heads the Southern Environmental Law Center's office in Chapel Hill.
DOT officials have said they are considering fills and bridges. Ted Vaden, a DOT deputy secretary, said Carter's version was only one of several options being discussed by DOT engineers and environmental regulators.
"At this point there is not a plan," Vaden said. "There is not a proposal. What we are doing now is preparing recommendations to go to the governor. We expect to have them to her by early next week."
Carter said the permanent bridges would cover two clusters of highway breaches caused by a storm surge that pushed water from Pamlico Sound across the island. One is five miles south of Oregon Inlet near a group of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge buildings, and the other is just north of the village of Rodanthe.
Carter's organization opposes DOT's $216 million plan for a replacement of the worn-out bridge over Oregon Inlet because it does not include a long-term solution for the steady erosion of N.C. 12, which suffers frequent storm-related ruptures on Hatteras Island.
Instead, the Southern Environmental Law Center favors a more comprehensive approach: new ferry routes combined with a 17-mile bridge over Pamlico Sound from the northern end of Oregon Inlet to Rodanthe, to bypass the Pea Island refuge and the most vulnerable sections of N.C. 12.
Geologists in recent years have predicted new breaches in Hatteras Island and N.C. 12 near the spots where Irene broke through last weekend. Since 1987 DOT has spent $32 million to maintain and repair N.C. 12, which runs from Corolla to Ocracoke.
"Now's the time to put the long bridge over the sound and ferry alternatives for more reliable, long-term access to Hatteras Island back on the table," Carter said. "NCDOT's insistence on waging a losing and costly battle against the ocean at taxpayer expense is irresponsible because the ocean will win in the end."
Hatteras Island and its ferry-dependent neighbor, Ocracoke Island, are cut off from the mainland until N.C. 12 is repaired. Residents have been allowed to return by ferry to Ocracoke, but not to Hatteras.