RALEIGH — After winning federal approval for a project that has been criticized by environmentalists, the state Department of Transportation solicited bids this week to build a $124 million bridge that will elevate 2.4 miles of N.C. 12 over an erosion-prone stretch of the Outer Banks.
Its in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge between Oregon Inlet where legal challenges have stalled DOTs effort to replace the deteriorating Bonner Bridge and Hatteras Island. The new Pea Island bridge would be a longer, taller replacement for a 600-foot temporary steel bridge that carries the highway over an inlet created two years ago by Hurricane Irene.
The bridge will lift N.C. 12 high over the dune line, reaching as high as 32 feet above sea level. And highway planners have acknowledged what coastal geologists predict: The barrier island will continue its steady migration westward, so the N.C. 12 bridge to be built now on dry land eventually will be standing in the turbulent surf of the Atlantic Ocean.
As the shoreline erodes, the dunes and beach will migrate under the bridge until eventually the bridge is in the ocean, the Federal Highway Administration said Monday in a 244-page record of decision that gives DOT permission to start construction.
Contract bids are to be opened in November. Pending the approval of several state and federal permits, construction could start in early 2014 and finish by the end of 2017, according to DOT.
This is an important step forward because the new bridge will offer reliability to the residents, visitors and businesses that depend on N.C. 12, Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said in a news release.
The bridge is part of an expensive string of N.C. 12 projects planned to reinforce sections of the Outer Banks highway regularly flooded or severed by hurricanes and noreasters. Environmental groups have mounted a sustained challenge to DOTs efforts.
A federal judge last month dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center seeking to block a $215.8 million replacement for the 2.5-mile Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet. But DOT cant start work because the plaintiffs are appealing the dismissal in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and they are waging a parallel fight at the state level, before an administrative law judge.
Next year, DOT hopes to award a contract for another bridge that would send a longer section of N.C. 12 curving out over Pamlico Sound near the Hatteras Island village of Rodanthe. That bridge is expected to cost at least $119 million.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit firm with a North Carolina office in Chapel Hill, has contended in its legal challenges that all three bridges should be replaced with a single structure 17 miles long. It would bypass the Pea Island wildlife refuge, carrying N.C. 12 from Bodie Island north of Oregon Inlet south over Pamlico Sound to Rodanthe. DOT and the Federal Highway Administration argued that they would be unable to raise the estimated $1.1 billion needed to build the long bridge all at one time.
The Pea Island bridge is designed with two lanes 12 feet wide, with 8-foot shoulders. A 3-foot wall would shield sea turtle nests from the glare of automobile headlights.
John F. Sullivan III, the Federal Highway Administrations administrator for North Carolina, signed the report concluding that the Pea Island bridge plan is environmentally preferable and in the best overall public interest.
The report does not say much about whether the bridge will be harmed as it moves into the Atlantic Ocean, but it mentions a few ways the coastal environment will be changed by the bridge.
The bridge eventually will affect the look of the beach, and it will eliminate surfing there. Fish will be attracted to the bridge piles, and they are expected to pose an increased threat to sea turtle hatchlings.