The state Department of Transportation is in quiet talks with its longtime courtroom nemesis, the Southern Environmental Law Center, on a deal to replace the deteriorating Bonner Bridge with “a new parallel bridge” over Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks.
The two parties said Monday they hope to find common ground in the wake of an Aug. 6 federal appellate court ruling in a 3-year-old lawsuit that has stalled construction on a new bridge. Both sides had claimed the ruling as a partial victory in their long-running, often bitter fight over narrow barrier islands where tourists and residents depend on a road that is frequently undermined by ocean storms and rising seas.
The announcement about a “parallel” bridge appeared to signal that the Southern Environmental Law Center will give up its quest to have DOT replace Bonner with a 17-mile-long bridge that would carry N.C. 12 over Pamlico Sound, bypassing the entire Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and returning to dry land at Rodanthe on Hatteras Island.
Their joint statement also included a promise to develop a “long-term solution” to the highway problems through Pea Island. And there were indications that DOT might abandon its plan to protect N.C. 12 by elevating it on miles of bridges that would be built on dry land now – only to move into the turbulent surf as the Outer Banks continue migrating westward in future years.
DOT engineers last week gave state and federal regulatory agencies a vague briefing on a possible “new concept” for N.C. 12 that would seem to split the difference between the two approaches. The Outer Banks highway would continue south from Oregon Inlet through the northern half of the Pea Island refuge and then veer out into Pamlico Sound, running over the water for about 7 miles to Rodanthe.
“They put a slide up on the board and said, ‘This is conceptual, only,’ and, ‘What would be your concerns about it?’ ” Dennis Stewart, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said on Monday. “There was no indication this was going to be a plan any time in the near future.”
The new option appears to bypass two sections of N.C. 12 that DOT had planned to elevate on separate bridges. A $79.7 million contract was awarded last year for one of those bridges, but DOT suspended work there last week, citing the Aug. 6 appellate court ruling.
If the two antagonists can come to terms, it could allow work to start on a $216 million contract to replace Bonner Bridge, awarded by DOT in 2011 but stalled in court since then.
“We remain committed to building a new parallel bridge over the Oregon Inlet to ensure the safety of Outer Banks residents and visitors,” Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said in the news release Monday. “We have been in conversations with the SELC about the Bonner Bridge project for more than a year and believe these recent proactive discussions are a positive step toward a permanent solution.”
‘Ivory tower elitists’
It was only last December that Tata vilified the Southern Environmental Law Center as “ivory tower elitists” who sip lattes in air-conditioned offices and regard Outer Banks travelers with contempt. DOT had to close Bonner Bridge for two weeks to repair erosion damage that had undermined bridge supports, and Tata blamed the environmentalists for blocking construction on a new bridge.
Derb Carter, who heads the group’s Chapel Hill office and says he takes his coffee black, said in the news release Monday that he would work with DOT to find a solution.
“We are continuing to work together with NCDOT to resolve this matter with a reliable, long-term solution that ensures the safety of the traveling public and avoids the problems that currently threaten N.C. 12,” Carter said. His office represents two conservation groups, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, in the Bonner Bridge lawsuit.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously on Aug. 6 that DOT could not build its 2.4-mile-long parallel replacement for Bonner Bridge unless it proved there was no way to avoid damaging the Pea Island refuge. But the appellate judges knocked down the environmentalists’ argument that DOT and the Federal Highway Administration violated federal environmental law against breaking into several phases a big project that must be planned as a whole.
‘I don’t understand’
Outer Banks residents were puzzled last week when DOT stopped work on the Pea Island bridge, citing the appellate ruling.
“I have a lot of concerns that they’ve stopped building it, and I don’t understand why,” Allen Burrus of Hatteras, a Dare County commissioner, said Monday before the announcement.
Burrus speculated that a deal was in the works for some kind of new bridge – and he worried that it could only lead to more years of regulatory delay.
“Anybody who thinks we could get the permits in our lifetime is not reading the landscape very well,” Burrus said. “The tea leaves show clearly that the environmental groups have a huge chokehold on the justice system.”
Bonner Bridge, which carries 10,000 cars a day during the busy summer tourist season, was designed to last 30 years after its opening in 1963. Salt air has corroded its steel and concrete, and the turbulent waters of Oregon Inlet frequently undermine its support columns. The state has spent $64 million on repairs and maintenance in the past 20 years.
Gov. Pat McCrory welcomed the DOT-SELC negotiations.
“We know how crucial N.C. 12 is to connectivity for residents and visitors of the Outer Banks,” McCrory said in a statement.