NCDOT starts work on a new Outer Banks bridge

An Outer Banks groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday marked the long-awaited start of construction on a $246 million replacement for the old Bonner Bridge across Oregon Inlet.

“This is a historic moment to be able to finally put our shovels in the ground and say that construction of a new, 21st century Bonner Bridge is underway,” Gov. Pat McCrory said. “I am proud to say to the people of the Outer Banks that your lifeline, a new Bonner Bridge, is on its way, and it will be engineered and built to last for generations to come.”

The present 2.4-mile bridge, which carries N.C. 12 from Bodie Island to Pea and Hatteras islands, was supposed to be good for only 30 years when it opened in 1963. Salt air has corroded the steel-and-concrete structure since then, and the shifting currents of Oregon Inlet have at times undermined its support pilings.

By the time its 2.8-mile replacement bridge opens for traffic in November 2018, the original Bonner Bridge will be 55 years old. DOT says the new bridge will last 100 years.

“The new Bonner Bridge will be built with the best materials available to protect it against the harsh salt air and water and will be the first in the state built using stainless reinforcing steel, which will provide additional protection and reduce maintenance costs,” Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson said, according to a McCrory news release.

DOT awarded a construction contract in 2011, but conservationists blocked it with a lawsuit. A 2015 settlement with the bridge opponents, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, cleared the way for DOT to start building the new Bonner Bridge.

Besides allowing Bonner to proceed, the 2015 legal settlement also will help shape the construction of two more N.C. 12 bridges DOT plans for vulnerable spots farther down the coast.

Residents of eight villages on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands depend on N.C. 12 and Bonner Bridge for their connection to the mainland, and for the tourists that provide most of their livelihood.

“The people of the Outer Banks anxiously waited for decades to see this critical project move forward, and Gov. McCrory got the dirt moving and construction underway,” said Malcolm Fearing of Manteo, a member of the state Board of Transportation.

Hurricanes and rising seas have breached the Outer Banks highway with increasing frequency in recent years, and the bridge itself was shut for two weeks of emergency repair in late 2013. DOT has spent more than $65 million for continual inspection and regular repairs, just to keep the bridge safe, over the past 20 years.

The new Bonner will be built a few hundred feet to the west of the old one, but with a different design that is expected to improve navigation through Oregon Inlet. The old bridge has a narrow opening, 130 feet wide, for a navigation channel that frequently shifts to the north or south after a storm. The new bridge will have seven navigation spans, each about 300 feet wide.

Bruce Siceloff: 919-829-4527, @Road_Worrier