How to fix NC 12: Up and over

The state’s approach to keeping N.C. 12 open on Hatteras Island looks increasingly iffy.

November 28, 2012 

A bridge here, a bridge there, and someday Northeasterners who come to the Outer Banks may think they’re looking at a Tar Heel version of the Pulaski Skyway, that Industrial Age relic carrying U.S. 1 over the New Jersey Meadowlands outside of New York City.

OK, that’s letting our imagination run a little wild. But efforts to keep storm-ravaged N.C. 12 open on the Banks increasingly hinge on bridges where surf and sand simply won’t be denied passage.

What this means is that maintaining the ribbon of pavement along Hatteras Island is becoming more and more costly. Not only that, but bridges now being considered by the state Department of Transportation might well end up literally at sea, standing in the relentless surf as the fragile barrier island retreats to the west.

Since aptly named Hurricane Sandy roared by offshore a month ago, the DOT has struggled to bulldoze sand from N.C. 12 and fix buckled pavement. One section near Rodanthe took such a beating that spanning it with a temporary bridge is looking to DOT like the lesser of evils. Another bridge had to be installed last year, to cross a new inlet cut by Hurricane Irene.

Meanwhile, the agency still seeks permission to build a replacement for the obsolete Bonner Bridge that lifts N.C. 12 over Oregon Inlet at the north end of Hatteras Island. The new inlet bridge would commit the state to trying to keep the highway open to the south – even as the recent storms show how difficult that is likely to be.

Environmental groups have argued, so far without success, that the state’s approach to replacing the Bonner Bridge is both disruptive and shortsighted. That’s because of those bridges that would be needed south of the inlet to maintain a passable roadway. As the beach continues its natural migration toward Pamlico Sound, DOT’s critics have claimed, the new route will become more and more vulnerable to the ocean’s fury.

Guess what: Judging from the aftermath of Sandy and Irene, those critics appear to be on target. The Bonner replacement is stil tied up in legal challenges, and already the battle to keep NC. 12 open is escalating. The increasingly urgent question is whether that battle is winnable at a price acceptable to taxpayers.

After all, there is a better idea – dismissed by state officials as too expensive, but now looking as though it could be more cost-effective in the long run.

That is to replace the Bonner Bridge with a causeway taking N.C. 12 farther to the west, into Pamlico Sound, as it skirts the sound side of Hatteras Island.

The “long bridge” solution would avoid the need for more bridge-building on the island itself – including some bridges that amount to emergency repairs after the Outer Banks have been swept by a hurricane or nor’easter.

Ironically, in one configuration for a bridge to take N.C. 12 out of harm’s way north of Rodanthe, the DOT would bring Pamlico Sound into play. With imitation the sincerest form of flattery, perhaps the department should rethink its whole approach to the challenge of giving Outer Banks residents and visitors a road link that isn’t at risk of being severed each time there’s a bad storm.

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