A newcomer's guide to the Bonner Bridge controversy

Posted by Dan Barkin on December 9, 2013 

If you have just relocated here and your understanding of North Carolina geography is still evolving, you may not get the Bonner Bridge story, and why the bridge’s temporary closing is such a big deal.

I do not hold myself out as an expert on this story. But let me use a question and answer format to try to explain what’s happening.

Q: What is this bridge?

A: It is located on the Outer Banks about a three-hour-plus drive from Raleigh. It goes over the Oregon Inlet, which is basically a hole in the Outer Banks between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pamlico Sound that was created by a hurricane nearly 170 years ago. When you drive over the Oregon Inlet on Highway 12, you’re going over the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge. It’s 50 years old, and the state wants to replace it. Here is a photo gallery of the bridge.

Q: Why is it so important?

A: The bridge is the only way by road between North Carolina’s mainland and Hatteras Island. Besides the thousands of people who live on Hatteras year-round, a couple of million tourists visit Hatteras and another island, Ocracoke, further south. Incidentally, one of the confusing things about this story is that when we think of islands, we usually think of round things surrounded by water. The barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks aren’t round. They are narrow and long strips of sand. Unless you really know the Outer Banks, trying to understand this story without a map and a lot of concentration is next to impossible. When I edit stories about storms and hurricanes that involve the Outer Banks, I have a fetish about overexplaining the geography that occasionally drives reporters batty.

Q: Why hasn’t the bridge already been replaced? How did it get so old?

A: People have been talking about replacing the bridge since the mid-1970s. But there has been endless debate over how to do it.

Q: What are the options?

A: The state and, it seems, most people on the coast want to build a short, 2-3 mile parallel bridge near the old one. Environmental groups want a 17.5-mile bridge that basically would take Highway 12 from the north side of the Oregon Inlet, out into the Pamlico Sound and then curve it back onto Hatteras Island at Rodanthe.

Q: Who is right?

A: It’s not that simple. The people who like the short bridge say it can be built faster and cheaper, and that the state will never be able to come up with the money all at once to pay for the longer option. The long-bridge supporters say building a short bridge could be a “bridge to nowhere.”

Q: Why?

A: Because Highway 12 on the southern end of the Bonner Bridge goes through the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge, which has a tendency to get waxed by storms. The highway gets breached and overwashed by sand. So if they build the short bridge, Highway 12 may not be there in the future.

Q: What do the short-bridge folks say about that?

A: They say that they can build some small bridges through the refuge to make sure Highway 12 is still driveable for tourists and locals. Even if, where the refuge is now, there’s a lot of Atlantic Ocean in the future. Think Florida Keys.

Q: What’s the latest on this?

A: Well, the controversy over the bridge flared up recently. A federal judge said the whole thing has been studied enough, and the short bridge over the inlet can be built. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has been challenging the short bridge, decided to appeal the decision.

Q: Was that all?

A: No. The appeal was filed in October. Then, at the end of November, inspections by state DOT crews showed some alarming things around the old bridge. Erosion had caused sand around support structures to be scoured away. The DOT closed the bridge on Dec. 3, and said it might be closed for 90 days while repairs took place.

Q: So the bridge is closed. What are Hatteras Island people doing?

A: The state has put on some emergency ferries from the island to the mainland, across the Pamlico Sound. But this is not a very convenient alternative to the Bonner Bridge, to put it mildly. And many Hatteras islanders are not putting it mildly. And politicians are helpfully suggesting that they direct their anger at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Q: How so?

A: Tony Tata, who used to be the Wake schools superintendent and is now the state’s transportation secretary, had the unpleasant task of ordering the bridge closed the other day. When he did so, he blamed the SELC for the fact that a new bridge hasn’t been built.

Q: What did he say?

A: He said: “These ivory tower elitists file these lawsuits from their air-conditioned offices in Chapel Hill. And they do so with their lattes and their contempt, and chuckle while the good people of the Outer Banks are fighting hard to scratch out a living here based on tourism and based on access.”

Q: What was that all about?

A: Well, many North Carolina politicians - most notably the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms -- have portrayed Chapel Hill as the home of leftists out of step with the rest of the state. I would quibble with the air-conditioning comment. Without air conditioning, I doubt IBM would have come south to RTP about the same time the Bonner Bridge was built. North Carolina’s modern economy was built on air conditioning. If I were Tata, I’d stay away from attacks on A/C.

Q: What was the response from the SELC?

A: They pointed out that a decade ago, the state DOT was in favor of the long-bridge solution. They pointed out that the DOT backed away from the long-bridge option after pressure from local officials on the coast. They pointed out that if DOT had moved forward with the long bridge a decade ago, it would have been built by now. Nothing’s worse than latte drinkers who remember things.

Q: So where do things stand?

A: It’s hard to predict whether the SELC will prevail in its legal challenge, but the state is eager to proceed with the Bonner Bridge replacement and other bridges to deal with Highway 12 problems on Hatteras Island. DOT is trying to get the old bridge’s erosion problems fixed quickly.

Q: What are some takeaways from all the controversy surrounding this bridge?

A: Where you stand, as the old saying goes, depends on where you sit. In the very old days, there weren’t even state ferries to Hatteras Island. The island was hard to get to. Then the ferries came, and the highway was paved, and then Congressman Herbert Covington Bonner was successful in getting federal money to pay a big chunk of the bridge’s cost. And that meant that many people could enjoy the Cape Hatteras National Seashore as tourists and residents, surfers and anglers. And you can count most of these folks as wanting a replacement bridge built quickly, near the existing bridge. Creating easy access to the island 50 years ago helped build a powerful constituency for continuing easy access.

But then there are the folks who, truth be told, probably would like to see the Bonner Bridge dismantled, no new bridge to replace it, and nothing but ferries to get people on and off the island.

That’s not going to happen, I feel very comfortable betting.

But Mother Nature has a vote here, too. Despite all the plans for bridges and causeways, it is best to remember that a powerful storm opened up the Oregon Inlet in 1846, and another powerful storm can reshape the Outer Banks again in ways that may be unbridge-able. That is the risk that the state will be taking in building hundreds of millions of dollars in new infrastructure on a sand foundation. The state is hoping that nothing very bad will happen for many years, and it will get its money back many times from this investment in the form of economic development and resultant tax revenue. But any investment needs to discount expected returns by adjustments for risk, and no one should have their eyes closed to the risk here.

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