Bonner Bridge, a 50-year-old Outer Banks structure that links Hatteras and Ocracoke islands to the mainland, was closed to traffic Tuesday after sonar scans and divers found new evidence of dangerous erosion that has undermined bridge supports.
The N.C. 12 bridge over Oregon Inlet will be closed for emergency repairs that could take as long as 90 days, the state Department of Transportation said. DOT launched emergency ferry service late Tuesday between Stumpy Point on the Dare County mainland and Rodanthe on Hatteras Island.
“Closing the Bonner Bridge is necessary to keep all travelers safe, but we know it will have a devastating effect on the people who live along and visit the Outer Banks,” Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said in a news release. “We will work to safely reopen this vital lifeline quickly, and hope to be able to begin construction on a new bridge as soon as possible.”
Hatteras and Ocracoke residents and visitors are familiar with DOT’s Stumpy Point ferry service, which cranked into action after N.C. 12 was severed by Hurricane Irene in 2011 and again by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
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“We know the residents of Hatteras Island are depending on us to be their lifeline, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” Jed Dixon, DOT’s deputy ferry director, said in a news release.
Some trying to use the ferries Tuesday had long waits. Jimmie Webb, 79, waited at least five hours to get back onto the island after a medical appointment in Greenville. “Since 3:30, we’ve been sitting in a lot, waiting and waiting,” Webb said at 8:30 p.m. Two ferries were at Stumpy Point, he said, but he said he was told that they didn’t have enough crew members for the passengers.
Legal challenges have prevented DOT from breaking ground on a $215.8 million contract, awarded in 2011, to replace Bonner Bridge with a new, 2.8-mile bridge across Oregon Inlet. DOT also is preparing this week to award an $84 million contract for a related project to elevate 2.4 miles of N.C. 12 on Pea Island, a few miles south of Oregon Inlet, to protect a section of highway that regularly is washed out by ocean storms.
Lawsuits stalled replacement
DOT officials and Dare County residents this week were critical of the Southern Environmental Law Center, whose lawsuits have stalled the Bonner Bridge replacement. The group has not indicated whether it will try to block the new Pea Island construction. Its lawyers have argued for years that DOT should instead build a 17-mile bridge that would cross Oregon Inlet and bypass Pea Island altogether.
“NCDOT’s flawed plan to build new bridges in the same places over Oregon Inlet and along N.C. 12 will continue to leave Hatteras Island residents repeatedly cut off by scouring and overwash, leaving the bridges in the ocean and making today’s situation the norm for decades to come,” Julie Youngman, a Chapel Hill-based lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Tuesday by email.
Bonner Bridge handles 5,200 cars and trucks on an average day, with traffic lighter during the winter. DOT said the Stumpy Point ferry can haul only 760 vehicles a day between Hatteras Island and mainland Dare County.
Island residents face hardship
Allen Burrus, a Hatteras grocer who serves on the Dare County Board of Commissioners, said the bridge closing will hurt Christmas tourism business and cause hardship for island residents.
“I would like to have Southern Environmental Law right by the throat, right now, and tell them about a guy here who has got to go for his cancer chemotherapy tomorrow, to live,” Burrus said by phone Tuesday. “I’d like them to come up with an answer why they have to do this.”
The bridge scouring is part of Oregon Inlet’s natural southward migration. DOT spent $1.8 million a year ago for scour protection repairs on the bridge, in an area close to the support pilings that recently were found to be undermined by new scouring.
The repair crews placed rock-filled baskets on the bottom of the inlet between the bridge supports and put sandbags around the pilings.
Burrus said he hoped DOT officials would find a quick way to reinforce the old bridge. He noted that a large dredging vessel is in Oregon Inlet this week, pumping sand from the inlet bottom onto nearby Pea Island.
“A dredge that can pump 600,000 cubic yards of sand in a week can certainly put up an island around a bridge piling,” Burrus said. “I don’t know why they don’t do it.”
DOT is posting bridge updates on its N.C. 12 Facebook page. Staff writer Andrew Kenney contributed.