Point of View

NC needs to face reality on Bonner Bridge replacement

January 17, 2014 

Time has run out for the luxury of scholarly debate over replacing the Bonner Bridge, which provides access to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands – for residents, visitors, services, supplies, emergencies and more.

In 2006, a special structural assessment of the structure was ordered by NCDOT and performed by an independent engineer. The engineers who wrote the assessment identified $43 million worth of repairs and were clear in summary: Regardless of the repairs, because of the “advanced stages of deterioration” replacement by 2016 was “necessity.”

Approximately 5,000 full-time residents on these islands use N.C. 12 for such things as work and medical care. Cape Hatteras National Seashore became America’s first national seashore in 1953 and attracts close to 3 million visitors from around the world annually. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge receives more than 2.5 million visitors annually. In the summer months, the population of these islands can swell to more than 40,000 people.

N.C. 12 and the bridge play an integral part in state and local plans for providing for the safety and security of residents and visitors. They are critical for hurricane and emergency evacuations. If the highway and bridge could not be used for an evacuation, the only emergency plan is a small ferry system capacity of fewer than 1,000 cars per day. Operation of the ferry would also be weather dependent in some of the most extreme coastal weather conditions in North America.

Obviously, even with good weather, ferries could evacuate only a small fraction of the island’s population. And there are no designated emergency shelters on either Hatteras or Ocracoke.

The highway also serves an essential role in providing emergency access for EMS, fire service and law enforcement vehicles. The time required to transport patients requiring medical assistance would be greatly increased and become weather-dependent. The ability of police and fire departments to receive timely mutual aid assistance would be reduced.

If the bridge were to be structurally compromised, the electrical power supply to Hatteras and Ocracoke would likely be severed. The power lines that provide electric service to both of the islands run underneath the Bonner Bridge. Any disruption of electrical service on these islands would have a direct effect on public safety. Additionally, the phone/data lines that connect us to the outside world are also supported by the bridge. Loss of these essential utilities would impede business operations, disrupt communication and have life-threatening consequences for those with serious medical issues or dependent upon life support equipment.

The bridge-replacement project is fully funded. The $216 million needed to build it is allocated in NCDOT’s budget. The studies have been completed, and the public process used to vet the solution was legally completed, according to a September decision by a federal judge. All options were studied over the painfully lengthy 19-year process, during which the NCDOT and the Federal Highway Administration jointly prepared 3,163 pages of environmental documentation and 12 federal and state governmental agencies analyzed 33 design options. The contractor has completed the design of the span, subcontractors have been selected and it is completely “shovel ready.” If the legal wrangling were to end now, NCDOT could mobilize in a matter of days to begin construction.

In the end, we must build a reliable option that balances the transportation and public safety needs along with protecting our natural environment. However, we must be able to pay for that solution. An idea will remain an idea if it is too expensive to implement. That is the reality of the world we live in.

We should not be fooled by Southern Environmental Law Center’s propaganda machine that touts replacing the Bonner Bridge with a $1 billion, 17-mile span. The scientists the center trots out at every turn to support their “speaking points” don’t have information that changes the fact that North Carolina residents out here on the coast need a replacement bridge started now.

What the opposition to the short-bridge replacement propose – such as high-speed ferries or a $1 billion long bridge – are impossible solutions.

They are offering no solution at all, which is exactly what we are close to having: nothing.

Beth Midgett is chairperson of Dare County’s Citizen Action Committee to replace the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet.

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