McCrory, Tata cast false blame for Bonner Bridge closing

December 9, 2013 

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Department of Transportation vehicles stop on the Bonner Bridge to unload concrete barriers Thursday. The N.C. DOT deemed the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet unsafe for vehicles on Tuesday and shut it down. The dredge may be used to fortify parts of the pilings with sand.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

It is symbolic of the tone and tactics of Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration that it would take a divisive approach to building bridges.

The administration that has caused bitter splits over public education funding, voting rights and tax policy now is pumping invective into what should be a technical debate about economics, engineering and the environment. The issue is what to do about a bridge linking the mainland to Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks.

The long-running issue gained new urgency last week when the state announced it would temporarily close the existing link, the aging Bonner Bridge, for emergency repairs. Underwater erosion has scoured away the sand foundation of some bridge pilings. The bridge must be closed, perhaps for months, to secure the supports.

The disruption will be an inconvenience and sometimes worse for island residents, vacation home owners and business owners. They’ll have to get to and from the islands by ferry, and emergency situations will require a helicopter. But the timing is a positive. Work will occur during the quiet winter months and should be done by the start of the summer tourist season.

That should be that. Instead, both the governor and state Department of Transportation Secretary Tony Tata have fanned the irritation felt by Outer Banks residents by blaming the shutdown on an environmental group, the Southern Environmental Law Center. The group has appealed a judge’s order that approved construction of a so-called “short bridge” to replace the Bonner Bridge. The 2.8-mile bridge would run adjacent to the Bonner Bridge to carry N.C. 12 from the mainland over the Oregon Inlet and through the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge to Hatteras Island.

The SELC and many others prefer a more costly “long bridge” option. The 17-mile-long bridge would carry N.C. 12 over Oregon Inlet, across Pamlico Sound and around the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge to Hatteras Island. The long bridge would cost more, but it would provide a long-term solution to frequent washouts where N.C. 12 passes through the Pea Island refuge and cause less environmental damage to the fragile area.

The McCrory administration should support the long bridge option. Instead, it has chosen to pander to the short-term needs of Outer Banks business interests. It’s pushing for the fix that will allow tourist-related profits to continue without interruption. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s residents would continue to pay for the inevitable storm-related repairs and would see one of the state’s greatest natural resources be further endangered.

Tata, who should be answering questions about why the bridge’s problems came to light so suddenly, instead has turned the bridge shutdown into an opportunity to condemn the SELC.

“These ivory tower elitists file these lawsuits from their air-conditioned offices in Chapel Hill,” Tata said. “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.”

The governor joined in the bashing by telling a Nags Head radio station, “The new bridge should have already been under construction, but the Southern Environmental (Law) Center is doing everything they can to block our efforts,” McCrory said. “They’re putting people in jeopardy. And they’re putting jobs in jeopardy.”

This demagoguery is bad on its own, but it’s even worse for being inaccurate. There’s nothing elitist or extreme about the long bridge option. It was supported by federal officials and the state DOT under Gov. Mike Easley in a 2003 agreement. The long bridge would be in place now had local officials not blocked it. On the other hand, the short bridge option is still awaiting permits and would not be open now even if the SELC had not appealed the judge’s approval of the project.

The governor and Tata clearly are unsuited to building bridges. They ought to get to work fixing Bonner Bridge and let the courts decide where its replacement should go.

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