Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Along the Outer Banks, NC DOT battles the sea

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMarch 11, 2013 

  • N.C. 12 updates, project plans online

    Check facebook.com/NCDOT and twitter.com/NCDOT_NC12 for updates from the state Department of Transportation about travel disruptions on N.C. 12.

    At ncdot.gov/nc12 you can learn about plans to spend more than $430 million to replace the old Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet and build two new bridges that will elevate several miles of N.C. 12, frequently closed because of storm damage. Included are schedules for public hearings Tuesday in Rodanthe and Wednesday in Ocracoke.

The sun was shining Monday along the Outer Banks, but N.C. 12 was under water at places up and down the coast. Part of the channel across Hatteras Inlet was choked with sand, and the state’s busiest ferry route ran on a limited schedule.

These days, it doesn’t take a hurricane to clog travel plans for days at a time on the Outer Banks. But past hurricanes share some of the blame for expensive problems that will linger into the spring, and perhaps for years to come.

In the wake of a winter storm last week that flushed water and sand across the barrier islands, N.C. 12 has been impassable – for hours at a time in some spots, and for a few days at others – at a handful of locations from Kitty Hawk to Hatteras.

The state Department of Transportation began a series of public hearings Monday on a plan to lift more than 4 miles of N.C. 12 on bridges high above the surf at Pea Island and the “S-Curves” near Rodanthe, where Hurricane Irene opened new breaches in 2011 – and where the highway is closed again this week for all but a few hours a day.

Depending on the outcome of an environmental lawsuit, DOT also could start construction this year on a replacement for the old N.C. 12 bridge over Oregon Inlet.

The new bridges should provide more stability for travel on the Outer Banks, but tourists and coastal residents will have a long wait. The three bridges will take at least three years to build, at a cost of more than $430 million.

“They’re about long-term solutions,” John Benson of Salvo said Monday. “We need a short-term solution that’s going to last until the long-term solution.”

Benson and his wife missed medical appointments in Nag’s Head on Saturday because N.C. 12 was closed. They rescheduled them for Monday, and had to cancel again.

After living on Hatteras Island for 20 years, the Bensons are accustomed to brief inconvenience when ocean overwash closes the road at high tide. But the problem has worsened in recent months.

“In the past, with the overwash, it’s been pretty easy to time your trips at low tide,” said Benson, 69, a retiree who does seasonal work for the National Park Service. “It’s not as easy now.”

DOT reopened the road at Pea Island and Rodanthe for a few hours Monday afternoon but said it would close again at high tide Monday evening, and for at least 12 hours overnight.

“There’s always been issues with traveling north on N.C. 12 from Rodanthe, but there has not been anything like (it is) now,” Benson said. “The last two nights, the highway stayed closed all night. It reopened yesterday at 1 or 2 o’clock and closed back around 6:40 p.m. I know some people who ended up getting stuck in Nag’s Head and had to get a motel overnight.”

Transportation Secretary Tony Tata invited coastal residents to a town meeting in Manteo on Monday evening. He was not available for comment.

Gov. Pat McCrory joined Tata for the gathering. They were expected to get an earful on issues including the intermittent ferry service between Hatteras and Ocracoke, a plan to collect new or increased tolls on other ferry routes starting in July – and N.C. 12.

Some coastal scientists have warned DOT against building the new bridges on barrier islands that are steadily retreating from the Atlantic. According to an environmental assessment published by DOT in January, the Pea Island bridge will be standing in the surf by 2060.

“If they’re going to have a bridge, they have to have a road – and that road isn’t going to be there,” said Stan Riggs, an East Carolina University coastal geologist who has advised DOT on the Pea Island project. “You can build the best bridge in the world, but you’re not going to survive in that surf zone out there for very long, because that’s a high-energy system.”

The tides recently have undermined part of N.C. 12 at a temporary steel bridge that was erected on Pea Island after Hurricane Irene. They’ve washed away the latest line of protective dunes pushed up by DOT bulldozers at the “S-Curves” near Rodanthe, where the pavement is just a stone’s throw from the surf.

“We’re going full blast, 100 percent, trying to get everything open again,” said Sterling Baker, who oversees DOT road maintenance in northern coastal counties. “My crews are down there today, moving sand and trying to address all that.”

Make contact: 919-829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com. On the Web at twitter.com/Road_Worrier/ and blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown/. Please include address and daytime phone.

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