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Road Worrier: After years of enmity, NCDOT and SELC make peace at Oregon Inlet

The Bonner Bridge which was completed in 1963 spans the Oregon Inlet on Monday June 15, 2015 in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the North Carolina Outer Banks. Lawyers for two conversation groups have agreed to drop their lawsuits and allow the North Carolina Department of Transportation to build a new bridge to replace the aging Bonner Bridge.
The Bonner Bridge which was completed in 1963 spans the Oregon Inlet on Monday June 15, 2015 in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the North Carolina Outer Banks. Lawyers for two conversation groups have agreed to drop their lawsuits and allow the North Carolina Department of Transportation to build a new bridge to replace the aging Bonner Bridge. rwillett@newsobserver.com

During years of bickering over how to replace the shaky old Bonner Bridge across Oregon Inlet, state leaders and environmental lawyers regularly faulted each other – sometimes in nasty, personal attacks – for delays that put travelers and the coastal economy in danger.

It was great news for the Outer Banks in June when Gov. Pat McCrory and the Southern Environmental Law Center announced a deal that will allow the state to build the long-delayed replacement bridge.

And after their long history of recrimination, it was stunning to see the two sides say nice things about each other. Maybe there’s hope for peaceful coexistence on the bitter barrier islands.

In 2010, former Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Democrat, raised the bloody specter of schoolchildren perishing in a bridge collapse. He blamed the Southern Environmental Law Center, which had filed a lawsuit to block the state’s bridge plan, and the Obama administration.

The environmental lawyers responded with an attack on Basnight himself. If he had not intervened years earlier, they claimed, the state Department of Transportation would already have finished building the new bridge they preferred. Instead of DOT’s 2.7-mile replacement for Bonner Bridge, they wanted a 17-mile bridge taking N.C. 12 through Pamlico Sound to bypass the entire Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Both sides spouted this sort of baloney for years, in self-serving broadsides that had little to do with the issues they debated in state and federal courts.

The finger-pointing went both ways when Bonner Bridge was closed for emergency repairs in December 2013. McCrory, a Republican, said North Carolinians should call on these “pretty left-wing” conservationists to drop their lawsuit. The Southern Environmental Law Center said DOT should have done the right thing in 2003.

Playing to an angry crowd in Manteo, DOT Secretary Tony Tata vilified the environmental lawyers as “ivory tower elitists” who sipped expensive coffee and chuckled with “contempt” for “the good people” of Dare County.

“Those things are hurtful,” Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of the Washington-based National Wildlife Refuge Association, one of two conservation groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center in the Bonner Bridge case, said Monday. “It doesn’t matter if we said it about Secretary Tata or he said it about us. I think we said some things in the media that made NCDOT defensive.”

The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued a split decision in the Bonner Bridge case last August. Each side claimed partial victory, and nothing was resolved. The Outer Banks appeared doomed to endure more cycles of litigation, recrimination and emergency bridge repairs.

Something else happened instead. Rather than wait years for a judge to impose a solution, the two sides agreed to settle their differences.

“It took a lot of face-to-face meetings,” Sorenson-Groves said. “It took a lot of trust-building. You can’t just turn it on. You have to build relationships with people, and the people at DOT were really good to work with. ... I think we had some great conversations with Secretary Tata. I think he thinks we were honest brokers and we were trying to work this out.”

When Tata reported the deal last week to the state Board of Transportation, he included a shout-out to the environmentalists’ lead attorney, Julie Youngman, for “yeoman’s work.” She and DOT lawyer Shelly Blake were credited with making the settlement happen.

The board members were treated to a one-sided video – edited to include only remarks from Tata and McCrory – from a June 15 joint news conference held in Dare County to announce the historic compromise.

The highlight came at the end. The former antagonists – Youngman and her client Sorenson-Graves, Blake and her client Tata – slipped off their shoes to stand ankle-deep, side by side, in the waters of Oregon Inlet.

What’s next on N.C. 12

At Rodanthe: DOT is seeking environmental permits to build a 2.5-mile bridge over Pamlico Sound, shaped like a jug handle, that will move N.C. 12 off the narrowest, most storm-vulnerable section of Pea and Hatteras islands.

At Pea Island: DOT has ended construction, after spending about $13 million, on a $59 million, two-mile bridge. For now, N.C. 12 uses a temporary 660-foot steel bridge constructed after Hurricane Irene opened a new inlet in 2011.

Work could start by the end of this year on an interim measure, a 3,000-foot bridge, while DOT studies a possible second Pamlico Sound bridge that would take N.C. 12 off the barrier island for about four miles. This bridge could connect to the Rodanthe jug handle, creating one 7-mile span.

At Oregon Inlet: Construction should start by spring on the Bonner Bridge replacement contract DOT originally awarded in 2011. It will take three years to build.

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