Environmental group decries “irresponsible public attacks” over Bonner Bridge

akenney@newsobserver.comDecember 6, 2013 

— As Hatteras Island residents make do without road access to their homes, the political fight over the closing of the aging Bonner Bridge continues.

The Southern Environmental Law Center has received “multiple threats” after state officials blamed the organization for the shutdown of the bridge, the group said in a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday.

The group argues that it has been the victim of “irresponsible public attacks” by North Carolina’s leaders. The letter, signed by the center’s North Carolina director, Derb Carter Jr., said the group sympathizes with residents and businesses affected by the closure but that its legal challenge to a planned replacement bridge is legitimate and well-reasoned.

Bonner Bridge was closed to traffic Tuesday after sonar scans and divers found new evidence of dangerous erosion that has undermined bridge supports. Soon after, state officials launched harsh criticisms of the law center. Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said Thursday that the law center is staffed by “ivory tower elitists” who contemptuously file lawsuits and sip lattes in their “air-conditioned offices in Chapel Hill.”

On Friday, state officials stepped up the pressure, again linking the SELC to this week’s closure of the bridge, the island’s only road connection to the mainland. In a letter, McCrory said the legal challenge is “standing in the way of progress for the people,” and he urged the group to drop its challenge, “in the spirit of teamwork.”

State officials have been planning a replacement bridge for years, and they say that the law center’s challenge is the final legal hurdle stopping construction.

But SELC argued again Friday that the state has been pursuing the wrong project. Representing two environmental organizations, the center contends the state should instead implement an old proposal for a 17-mile-long bridge that would carry N.C. 12 over Oregon Inlet, across Pamlico Sound and around the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge to Hatteras Island.

Spreading blame

DOT spokesman Mike Charbonneau put the cost of that bridge at close to $1.1 billion, while SELC says it has seen recent state estimates of about $550 million.

The state wants to build a shorter, less expensive bridge. The Department of Transportation awarded a $215.8 million contract in August 2011 to build a 2.8-mile bridge parallel to the old Bonner span. The SELC argues that this route would leave N.C. 12 more vulnerable to erosion, “overwash,” and closure, and that it would harm the wildlife reserve on Pea Island.

And the law center isn’t accepting blame for the bridge’s closure. The state, SELC argues, has not made Hatteras a funding priority.

SELC also spread blame to Dare County officials and local elected leaders, saying they “derailed” a plan a decade ago to build the longer bridge that SELC prefers. The group claimed that state and federal agencies reached a regulatory agreement on that plan, which would have been finished three years ago, according to SELC.

“The current situation would have been avoided,” Carter wrote.

Repairs on the bridge are expected to cost $1.6 million and take up to three months.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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