January 6, 2014

Road Worrier: DOT airs options for lifting NC 12 highway above Outer Banks

A 2.5-mile stretch of NC 12 will be elevated in place on a bridge that eventually will be standing in the Atlantic Ocean, or moved onto a bridge that would curve out into Pamlico Sound. Mirlo Beach homeowners oppose both bridge options.

Gale warnings are posted on Hatteras Island, and that means more ocean overwash is likely for N.C. 12 – but probably not enough wind and waves, this week, to close the barrier island highway.

Weather and road conditions are important for repair crews working on an old bridge that takes N.C. 12 over Oregon Inlet; and for engineers preparing to build a new bridge on N.C. 12 south of there on Pea Island; and for Outer Banks folks planning to attend public hearings that will help the state decide where to put a second new bridge a few miles farther down N.C. 12, at the Hatteras Island village of Rodanthe.

In Ocracoke on Tuesday, in Rodanthe and Buxton on Wednesday, and in Manteo on Thursday, the state Department of Transportation will invite public comments on two alternatives for protecting a stretch of N.C. 12 just north of Rodanthe that frequently is closed because of damage from coastal storms.

One option is to keep the highway where it is but lift it up on a 2.5-mile bridge, high above the dune line. The other is to put it onto a 3-mile bridge that would curve out into Pamlico Sound and return to the present N.C. 12 path at Rodanthe.

Both ideas are unpopular in the big-beach-house subdivision of Mirlo Beach at the northern end of Rodanthe. The island is so narrow here that many homes enjoy gorgeous views of the water on both sides – from sunrise over the ocean to sunset over the sound.

“Property values here will take a major hit from either bridge,” Wes Hutchinson said Monday at his four-bedroom house at Mirlo Beach.

“The bridge, along the current N.C. 12 alignment, will be a major, major loss because all those homes near there with oceanfront views will instead have views of a 30-foot bridge. The sound-side bridge is a little better, but it will cut off views and access for the windsurfing crowds,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson is a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and he hopes in a few years to retire to the beach house he and his wife built in 2000. The homes at Mirlo Beach take as many hard hits from ocean storms as does N.C. 12. The count is 52 houses.

“We’ve lost a few. We had one drop in with Hurricane Irene and one with Sandy,” Hutchinson said. “You know you’re in a bad situation if your little development makes The Weather Channel two years running.”

Pushing renourishment

Mirlo Beach homeowners will be speaking out against both bridge options this week. At a website called, they’re pushing beach renourishment instead – an alternative that DOT has rejected. The homeowners argue that pumping sand onto the beach at Rodanthe would do a better job of protecting the shore and the highway, and at less of an expense.

“And it would preserve the look and feel of the Outer Banks,” Hutchinson said.

Contractors are busy shoring up a section of the 60-year-old Bonner Bridge – which carries N.C. 12 over Oregon Inlet – that was closed briefly in December after erosion undermined its support columns. Work will start soon on a related $79.7 million contract to elevate a vulnerable 2.1-mile section of N.C. 12 in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, between Oregon Inlet and Rodanthe.

‘Build what they know’

DOT officials favor the option to elevate N.C. 12 along its current alignment at Rodanthe, as it is doing on Pea Island. That sounds like a good idea to Allen Burrus, a Hatteras grocer and Dare County commissioner. He worries that the state could never secure all the environmental permits it would need for a longer bridge over Pamlico Sound.

“I want them to build what they know they can build, permit-wise,” Burrus said.

Stanley Riggs, an East Carolina University coastal geologist who has advised DOT on the N.C. 12 projects, warns that bridges built along the highway’s current path will soon be standing in the surf as Hatteras Island continues migrating westward. A bridge in Pamlico Sound will last longer than one in the turbulent Atlantic Ocean, he said.

“It’s not the islands that are fragile,” Riggs said. “It’s the structures we put on these mobile piles of sand that are fragile.”

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