How we’ll travel from Manteo to Ocracoke 20 years from now is anybody’s guess these days, as the seas rise relentlessly and lawyers negotiate secretly over where to build new bridges for the Outer Banks highway.
It didn’t take a hurricane last weekend to flood the most vulnerable spots on N.C. 12. Coaxed by offshore winds and a waxing moon, a series of unusually high tides washed over the highway near Buxton and at a temporary steel bridge on Pea Island, where Hurricane Irene opened a new inlet three years ago.
Construction had started last spring on an extraordinary $79.7 million state Department of Transportation project to solve the Pea Island flooding with a new bridge that would lift a 2.1-mile section of N.C. 12 high over the dunes now – and over the surf in the future, as the barrier island continues to migrate westward.
But this novel strategy, which included another 2-mile-long bridge farther south on N.C. 12 at Rodanthe, is now in limbo.
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DOT halted work at Pea Island in September and said it was in talks with its courtroom nemesis, the Southern Environmental Law Center, to settle a lawsuit that has blocked construction since 2011 of another N.C. 12 bridge to the north, across Oregon Inlet.
The bridge project contractor, California-based Parsons Construction Group, was paid more than $7 million before DOT stopped work. Crews had paved 2 miles of new roadway intended as a detour route while the main road is elevated in its current location.
Until the lawyers decide whether to resume work at Pea Island or cancel the project altogether, the state continues to spend money on it.
Parsons is paying 10 workers to take care of the bridge site and the heavy equipment there. Three cranes sit idle along with pumps, generators, excavators and welding machines, and they have to be cleaned and maintained to protect them from the harsh elements.
“In this salt environment, without the equipment running, it tends to collect salt and sand and kind of seize up,” said Pablo Hernandez, the DOT engineer overseeing the project.
Another 12 Parsons employees are sitting around their construction office in the Hatteras Island village of Waves, waiting for something to do.
“It’s not what we are best at,” said Forrest Fischer, project manager for Parsons. “We like very much to build things. And that’s what we get up in the morning and look forward to doing during the day.”
More planning ahead
DOT is struggling to find long-term solutions to keep transportation open on the Outer Banks, where a state panel of coastal scientists says the sea level could rise by as much as 11 inches over the next three decades. These challenges extend beyond the pavement to include sand-choked navigation channels that have impeded ferries at Hatteras Inlet and other vessels at Oregon Inlet.
A joint statement from DOT and the Southern Environmental Law Center last month hinted at a possible outcome that might kill the dry-land bridge projects at Pea Island and Rodanthe. Instead, DOT would start building the $215.8 million Oregon Inlet bridge and start planning a second, 7-mile-long structure that would take N.C. 12 over Pamlico Sound – routing it around the planned Pea Island and Rodanthe bridges.
That’s right, taxpayers, tourists and Outer Banks residents: more planning.
The two sides are not commenting on their negotiations. If the talks fail, either could still file an appeal of a split ruling – both sides won part and lost part – issued Aug. 6 by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the Oregon Inlet bridge case.
Fischer said he hopes to find out next week, in a meeting with senior DOT officials, whether he’ll be able to get back to work at Pea Island. Hernandez is waiting for news from the lawyers, too.
“We’re just in a holding pattern,” Hernandez said.