Point of View

Tata: Environmental group must end legal fight so Bonner Bridge can be replaced

December 12, 2013 

The Bonner Bridge project is about people, not politics. The necessary decision to close the bridge for safety is having a significant impact on the lives of thousands of Outer Banks residents every day. People needing to get between Hatteras Island and the mainland for medical appointments, education, jobs or other life necessities must take a nearly three-hour ferry ride, one way.

When sonar scans and divers confirmed an immediate safety concern Dec. 3, we closed the bridge and established initial emergency ferry service. Our superb ferry division employees continue working hard every day to get residents and provisions to and from Hatteras Island. We secured a bridge repair contractor by that evening. The next day we live-streamed a press briefing in Dare County to explain the situation. Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency that allowed us to quickly secure an emergency dredge to begin filling the affected area. NCDOT and dredging crews worked through harsh weather conditions throughout the weekend to complete the initial work.

Jerry Jennings, Division One engineer, and I visited the bridge Wednesday morning and saw contractors filling large sandbags and receiving equipment, divers going into the sound at slack tide, the sonar boat beginning its scans and our Geotech team driving two pilings into the sand to give us additional readings of load-bearing strength at the affected portion of the bridge. I am proud of the quick response and strong collaboration of our entire team.

Emergency repairs are not a permanent solution. The permanent solution can be found in Judge Louise Flanagan’s September order affirming that NCDOT has complied with all laws and regulations in identifying the most environmentally and economically sound bridge option and denying all claims by the Southern Environmental Law Center. The legal challenges by the SELC on behalf of their clients, the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, have delayed the construction of a new parallel bridge. In addition to denying Hatteras Island residents a reliable bridge connection, the lawsuits against our approved National Environmental Policy Act review and our secured Coastal Area Management Act permit have also cost North Carolina taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees, lost construction opportunity costs and repairs to the 50-year-old bridge.

Importantly, the parallel bridge currently under contract was recommended by the EPA and is the product of collaboration and teamwork. In her order, Flanagan validated the work of the “merger team” that included the Federal Highway Administration, EPA, NCDOT, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Park Service, N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. This team reached consensus that the parallel bridge is the most practicable and least environmentally damaging option for access to Hatteras Island, following nearly two decades of study.

Despite this overwhelming consensus of federal and state agencies, a small group of activists argues for cutting an 18-mile swath through the waters of Pamlico Sound. What should we make of the fact that although the SELC is on record opposing a 5-mile bridge across Currituck Sound, it advocates an 18-mile bridge through a similar estuary in the same watershed? Further, the long bridge would potentially violate the Clean Water Act, which mandates using an existing avoidance alternative (N.C. 12). No permits or funds have ever been secured to build the long bridge, which would cost approximately $1 billion, according to three independent studies. The group has also suggested a high-speed ferry option that would cost more than $6 billion over 50 years and require constant dredging of the sound.

The parallel bridge is the only design that has ever moved forward with final federal and state agency consensus and approval, the only one to go out for bid and the final option for which NCDOT awarded a contract in 2011. The parallel bridge will cost about $216 million, and through a phased approach, the state expects to invest an additional $270 million in future N.C. 12 modifications and repair.

The existing bridge is already standing 20 years beyond its expected life, and the recent closure highlights the urgency of replacing it. Yet, this is the first time in 50 years we’ve had to close this bridge for erosion around a support piling.

I admire the patience and pioneer spirit of our Outer Banks residents who struggle daily, devoting hours to access basic services as they wait for the permanent connection they deserve. Hatteras Island and the Outer Banks are national treasures that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. As many as 13,000 vehicles cross the Bonner Bridge during peak travel days in the summer, an important part of North Carolina’s $19.4 billion annual tourism industry.

Within a week, over 10,000 people have signed a petition that the lawsuit be dropped and the bridge be built. It is now time for the SELC to listen; release its grip on residents’ access to health care, jobs, education and other important services; and dismiss all legal challenges so NCDOT can move forward in constructing a replacement bridge. McCrory and his administration will continue to fight for the new bridge.

Tony Tata is secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation.

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