Prodded by the urgent need for long-term repairs to a storm-ravaged Outer Banks highway - and constrained by the limits enforced by federal environmental regulators - the state Department of Transportation is moving toward a solution expected to include elevating more than four miles of N.C. 12 onto bridges, at a cost of several hundred million dollars.
The seven villages of Hatteras Island were cut off from the mainland Aug. 29, when Hurricane Irene blew out a section of N.C. 12 near Rodanthe and blew open a new inlet in the middle of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Traffic was restored seven weeks later after DOT filled gaps with dirt and erected a 660-foot-long temporary steel bridge across what locals call the New Inlet.
DOT engineers will meet today with officials from 13 regulatory agencies to winnow their options for repairs intended to stabilize these fragile sections of N.C. 12 for at least 50 years.
Island residents, environmentalists and local officials are divided over the choices aired at recent public meetings in Dare County:
Elevate N.C. 12 on concrete bridges that would lift the pavement more than 25 feet above the present highway, in the same location. One bridge in Pea Island Refuge would be about two miles long. A bridge at the southern end of the refuge and northern Rodanthe would be as long as 2.3 miles, possibly bolstered with beach renourishment.
Move N.C. 12 west, away from the encroaching Atlantic, on a new roadway or bridge in the refuge and a long bridge curving far into Pamlico Sound at Rodanthe. Some environmental engineers favor this approach.
Keep N.C. 12 as it is, and protect it with sand - heavy beach renourishment and 20-foot dunes along several miles of the shore.
Some of these alternatives might be eliminated after today's meeting. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which operates the Pea Island refuge, has refused in the past to allow construction outside DOT's 100-foot-wide easement for N.C. 12. Unless wildlife refuge officials soften their stance, DOT would have no hope of winning permits for beach and dune renourishment, or for relocating the highway.
"If there's options that the refuge is not willing to listen to, we're going to have to at this point throw them out," Beth Smyre, a DOT engineer overseeing the plans, said Wednesday. Fish & Wildlife officials could not be reached for comment.
That would leave just one of the alternatives floated so far: a pair of long bridges on N.C. 12. Early estimates put the combined construction cost at $211 million to $387 million.
Bridge at Pea Island
DOT officials have told Dare commissioners they expect to choose the N.C. 12 bridge option at Pea Island, and to award a contract for the work by August 2012.
The choices at Rodanthe are more difficult, especially since the bridge proposal could damage a dozen homes and businesses. But DOT wants to award a Rodanthe contract by December 2012, to finish the work by 2015.
"Overall, whichever one we can get permitted and constructed the fastest is the one we want because of the nature of the repairs we've done so far," Smyre said.
"For both sites, we want to get a long-term solution in place as quickly as possible."
Because the Outer Banks are migrating toward the mainland, scientists expect the shoreline to move west of N.C. 12 in the next 50 years. A road elevated on a dry-land bridge in 2015 will be in the Atlantic Ocean by 2060 - especially at the north end of Rodanthe, where it is close to the surf now.
"The elevated bridge in that same alignment is probably doable," said state Sen. Stan White of Dare County. "But you would end up with a road in the wash of the ocean in a few years, and I'm not sure how excited everybody in Rodanthe is about that option."
Wes Hutchinson, who owns a home in the flood-prone Mirlo Beach neighborhood of Rodanthe, is lobbying for beach renourishment.
"It's putting the same sand there that's always been there," said Hutchinson, a University of Pennsylvania business professor.
Moving N.C. 12
DOT consulted a panel of coastal scientists in October, and some in the group favored moving N.C. 12 farther away from the ocean.
"The road needs to be relocated farther landward one way or another, either a bridge or a paved road," said Spencer Rogers, a coastal engineer with N.C. Sea Grant, a UNC system program that studies coastal issues.
DOT awarded a $215.8 million contract in July for a 2.8-mile bridge to replace the worn-out structure that carries N.C. 12 across Oregon Inlet, just north of Pea Island and Hatteras Island.
Road planners had expected to spend years figuring out what to do next with the 13 miles of N.C. 12 between the inlet and Rodanthe, but Hurricane Irene accelerated their schedule.
Allen Burrus of Hatteras, a Dare County commissioner, expects DOT to decide on new bridges that will lift N.C. 12 above the waves and storm surges of hurricanes. The island's tourist economy needs a reliable highway, he said.
"You know, this is the life we live here," Burrus said. "We need to be able to guarantee visitors they can get in and out. We can't get them here on ferries, that's for sure."