The recent decision by the N.C. Department of Transportation to temporarily close Bonner Bridge to Hatteras Island without any warning caused hardship and disrupted lives from daily commutes to medical emergencies.
The bridge closure and regular washouts of N.C. 12 that prevent access to the bridge are reminders of how fragile the ocean-exposed route on a narrowing spit of sand is. Those of us who are drawn to the Outer Banks barrier islands to vacation or live rely on that route, but it will not last much longer.
The only alternative to connect Hatteras to the mainland with complete agreement from all federal and state agencies is a bridge and causeway that would run through the sheltered Pamlico Sound and avoid the eroding north end of Hatteras Island. NCDOT estimated in 2003 that a Pamlico Sound bridge could be constructed by 2010 at a cost of about $260 million. The Southern Environmental Law Center supported this proposal then and continues to support this alternative now. If the project had gone forward, safe and dependable transportation to Hatteras Island would be in place and the effects of this closure avoided.
Unfortunately, local politicians undermined this unanimous agency agreement. Since then, NCDOTs various plans and its faulty analysis led to objections by almost all of the state and federal agencies involved and delayed the project for years. In particular, all agencies have not agreed on NCDOTs current plan, including the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which own the property on which the bridge and future bridges and roads would be constructed. Four federal agencies have yet to issue required permits to begin construction on NCDOTs proposed short replacement bridge.
After local political opposition redirected NCDOT to favor the short bridge, NCDOT increased its estimate of the cost of a longer bridge, just four years later, from $260 million to $929 million to $1.4 billion, and NCDOT declared it unaffordable. Last year NCDOT staff again estimated the cost of a long bridge at a low of $569 million and a high of $629 million. Not satisfied with lower numbers from its own staff, NCDOT hired a consultant for a new estimate, which came in at over $1 billion.
The SELC repeatedly suggested an independent assessment of the actual cost of a longer bridge not afflicted by political motivation. NCDOT refused these requests.
Similarly, in the past legislative session the SELC opposed the decision by the McCrory administration and ultimately the General Assembly to exclude N.C. 12 from qualifying for funding under the new transportation formula as a statewide priority. We lobbied for its inclusion because in our view it is a statewide priority, and these funds could contribute to a more permanent solution to the longstanding problems of maintaining N.C. 12.
NCDOT has proposed several projects to address transportation to Hatteras Island, all in response to emergencies caused by erosion, scouring and breaches the very problems that made NCDOT support the Pamlico Sound bridge. Today, NCDOT has no plan for the future deterioration of the remainder of N.C. 12 that will, as in the past, preclude access to its planned new bridges and Hatteras Island.
To avoid federal permits and requirements, NCDOTs plans are an effort to maintain N.C. 12 by raising parts of it onto bridges in its existing right of way, some of which is already in the ocean and all of which will eventually be in the ocean. NCDOTs estimated cost for that patchwork solution is $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion, and this approach accepts the inevitable and costly disruptions to access as the N.C. 12 right of way continues to disappear into the ocean.
NCDOT staffs $569 million estimate for a reliable, permanent solution the bridge over Pamlico Sound closes the gap with the initial bill of $451 million for the first few parts of NCDOTs patchwork plan that does not even prevent further costly shutdowns.
While NCDOT and Gov. Pat McCrory cannot stop storms and tides, they can change their plan to one that will better serve Hatteras Island, the state and its taxpayers. We hope to see all parties work together to find a long-lasting solution for Hatteras Island.
Derb S. Carter Jr. is director of the N.C. office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.