Federal judge rejects challenge to NC's Oregon Inlet bridge project

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comSeptember 16, 2013 

— Environmental groups have lost their bid in federal court to block the state’s plan to replace the deteriorating N.C. 12 bridge over Oregon Inlet, but the Outer Banks project will remain in limbo until a similar lawsuit is settled by a state administrative law judge.

The state Department of Transportation wants to replace the 2.5-mile Bonner Bridge, built in 1962, which links Bodie and Hatteras islands. The proposed new bridge is part of a long-range plan to shore up a 12-mile stretch of N.C. 12 that is frequently damaged by coastal storms, from Oregon Inlet through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, to the village of Rodanthe.

DOT awarded a $215.8 million contract in August 2011 to build a 2.8-mile bridge parallel to the old one. But the project was delayed while the courts considered a legal challenge from the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

The environmental groups favor a 17.5-mile bridge that would curve across Pamlico Sound, bypassing the Pea Island refuge and linking Bodie Island directly to Rodanthe. They contend that the state’s bridge would hurt coastal wildlife and that DOT and the Federal Highway Administration failed to give full consideration to other options, including replacing the bridge with high-speed ferries. They say state and federal regulatory agencies should consider the full length of the bridge-and-road project, rather than approve a small piece of it.

Judge Louise Flanagan of North Carolina’s Eastern District Court rejected their arguments Monday in a 42-page order issued in Elizabeth City. She said DOT and the Federal Highway Administration considered the options thoroughly. Their plan to build the longer project in phases “is a practical means of addressing the changing natural conditions of the area,” Flanagan wrote.

Transportation Secretary Tony Tata expressed his thanks to Flanagan.

“With this ruling, N.C. DOT is prepared to move as quickly as possible to replace this lifeline bridge,” Tata said at a news conference. “N.C. DOT cares about the economy, the environmental impact in all that we do, and the people – both who live there and who visit there. And we strive to find a balance between those aspects.”

The Oregon Inlet project will remain stalled until a state administrative law judge considers a parallel complaint filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center in the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings. A Wake County judge ruled in August that the environmental groups should get a hearing, which has not been scheduled, on their claim that the state Coastal Resources Commission was wrong to issue an environmental permit.

Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County commissioners, welcomed the federal court ruling and said he hopes for a similar outcome at the state level.

“This bridge has needed to be replaced for decades,” Judge said. “It started in earnest in 2001, and here it is 2013, after many delays causing increased costs, all by special interest groups that don’t understand and don’t care. ... I’m completely buffaloed by why this group of people doesn’t want us to have safe and dependable transportation.”

Julie Youngman, a Chapel Hill-based attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the plaintiffs were considering whether to appeal Flanagan’s ruling to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

“N.C. DOT’s piecemeal approach to a route across Oregon Inlet, through a wildlife refuge to Rodanthe, would commit North Carolina and its taxpayers to maintaining an expensive, unreliable series of bridges and road segments that N.C. DOT admits will end up in the ocean,” Youngman said by email.

DOT plans in coming months to open bids for a 2.4-mile bridge, expected to cost $98 million, that would elevate a vulnerable section of N.C. 12 in the Pea Island refuge. State highway planners have said the bridge will end up in the surf zone as the Outer Banks continue to migrate westward, toward the mainland. A bid opening for another long bridge at Rodanthe, pegged at $119 million, is expected next year.

The environmentalists’ preferred bridge over Pamlico Sound would be one of the longest bridges in the United States. DOT and the Federal Highway Administration argued that they would be unable to raise the estimated $1.1 billion needed to build it all at one time.

The 50-year-old Bonner Bridge was designed to last 30 years after its opening in 1963. Salt air has corroded its steel and concrete, and the turbulent waters of Oregon Inlet frequently undermine its support columns. Tata said DOT has spent $56 million since 1990 to inspect, repair and maintain the bridge, with another $2 million maintenance project to begin later this year.

“We’ve spent enough taxpayer money already, fixing the old bridge,” Tata said. “And it’s time to build a new one.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown; Twitter @Road_Worrier.

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