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Road Worrier: Bonner replacement bridge starting after years of delay

Construction will start in March on a long-awaited replacement for the rickety Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks – 25 years late, and not a minute too soon.

The 2.4-mile N.C. 12 bridge, a mainland link to Hatteras Island, 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 successor opens for traffic in November 2018, the original Bonner Bridge will be 55 years old.

“We’ve been eager for a long time,” said Shawn Mebane, who oversees state Department of Transportation construction in northeastern North Carolina. “It’s been long overdue.”

Conservationists filed a lawsuit that stopped the project shortly after DOT awarded a $215.8 million bridge contract in 2011. 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.

Design changes and five years of inflation have increased the contract price, now pegged at $246 million.

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.

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. Over the past two decades, DOT has had to spend more than $65 million for continual inspection and regular repairs, just to keep the bridge safe.

Dare County leaders say the new Bonner Bridge will make N.C. 12 more dependable.

A real estate boost

“We are relieved that construction will start,” Warren Judge, a Dare County commissioner, said Monday after DOT officials briefed commissioners on the Bonner Bridge schedule. “We still have several hurricane seasons and a lot of traffic that has to go across (the old bridge), but DOT has been great at keeping it maintained.”

Judge predicts a surge in business investment on Hatteras.

“This means a lot to the psyches of the businessmen and women there,” he said. “I expect we’ll see a flurry of new real estate activity. There will be more building, and we’ll see more jobs as a result.”

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.

“We’re hoping it’s going to open up a lot of options there,” said Roger Bullock, chief of navigation for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Wilmington, which is responsible for dredging that keeps the channel open for navigation. “We’re hoping it’s going to reduce our dredging requirements and that we’ll keep a deep-water route coming through the inlet.”

The old bridge will be demolished, with most of its steel and concrete dumped offshore as part of an artificial reef. To help stabilize the northern end of Pea Island, where the new bridge comes ashore, DOT agreed to leave the southern end of the old bridge intact.

It will become a 900-foot pier for tourists and residents who park their cars nearby.

“The public will be able to park and walk out onto the pier and look at the scenery,” Mebane said. “It’s just for observation at this point. Fishing will not be allowed.”

The 2015 settlement that freed DOT to build the new bridge was a compromise between road builders’ priorities and conservationists’ concerns.

The Southern Environmental Law Center had argued for years that N.C. 12 was damaging the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge just south of the Oregon Inlet. The group wanted to bypass Pea Island entirely – shifting the highway toward the mainland, onto a 17-mile bridge across Pamlico Sound. DOT had argued that the cost would be prohibitive.

N.C. 12 will shift

By allowing DOT to build the new Bonner Bridge alongside the old one, the legal agreement will keep the bridge and N.C. 12 anchored to Pea Island. But the deal increases the likelihood that DOT will eventually move several miles of the highway off the island and into Pamlico Sound.

At the Hatteras Island village of Rodanthe, 12 miles south of Bonner Bridge, DOT plans to award a contract this summer that will take N.C. 12 over Pamlico Sound – between Hatteras Island and the mainland – in a loop shaped like a jug handle, bypassing a section of the island frequently washed out by ocean storms. The bridge is expected to cost around $200 million.

And in the Pea Island refuge between Oregon Inlet and Hatteras Island, DOT will start construction in March on a half-mile-long concrete bridge to replace a 660-foot steel truss structure built in 2011, after Hurricane Irene opened an inlet there.

The $14.2 million concrete structure is called an interim measure, giving DOT time to ponder a permanent fix at Pea Island. Much of the 2015 agreement is focused on pushing DOT toward building a second Pamlico Sound bridge there. If completed, it would link with the Rodanthe structure for a combined distance of more than five miles over the sound.

The agreement does not guarantee that DOT will build the Pamlico Sound bridge at Pea Island. But DOT agrees to “use best efforts” to study this option, and to work with regulatory agencies to reach an outcome that will minimize damage to the wildlife refuge.

“We’ll have to look at on-island alternatives as well, just for comparison there, and see which looks like the best route to go,” said engineer Brian Yamamoto, DOT’s lead planner for the project. The Pamlico Sound bridge study won’t be finished before the spring of 2017. Yamamoto said he did not know when a decision will be made about the project.

The environmentalists agree not to file another lawsuit if DOT builds the Pamlico Sound bridge at Pea Island.

“Time will tell the wisdom of the decision to build the Bonner Bridge at (DOT’s chosen) location,” said Derb S. Carter Jr., who heads the Southern Environmental Law Center’s North Carolina office in Chapel Hill. “But we think the steps that are being taken now, particularly in terms of moving the other bridges off the island and into a more sheltered area, will pay off down the road.”

DOT says its 2.8-mile replacement is designed to last 100 years.

On the Outer Banks, where the seas are expected to rise a few feet higher by then, our great-grandchildren will see how this works out.