The temporary metal truss bridge that has carried drivers over an Outer Banks inlet cut by a hurricane more than six years ago was replaced Tuesday by a $14.3 million concrete bridge that is also considered temporary.
The interim Pea Island bridge carries N.C. 12 over a breach caused by Hurricane Irene in August 2011 about 7 miles south of Oregon Inlet. The new half-mile bridge is considered “interim,” because the N.C. Department of Transportation is still studying a permanent strategy for carrying N.C. 12 through or around the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge that will satisfy motorists and environmentalists.
NCDOT had originally planned a longer, permanent 2.4-mile bridge that would carry N.C. 12 over the inlet and a vulnerable stretch of dry land in the wildlife refuge.
But construction was suspended shortly after it started in 2014 when DOT began seeking a settlement with environmental groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center that had sued to stop construction of a new Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet. The environmental groups favored a 17-mile-long bridge that would begin at the inlet and carry N.C. 12 out over Pamlico Sound, bypassing the wildlife refuge entirely.
The following year, the environmentalists agreed to drop their legal challenge to the Bonner Bridge and allow NCDOT to build the interim bridge over the inlet if the state would study options for building a longer permanent bridge to carry N.C. 12 out over the sound. Construction on the new $246 million Bonner Bridge began in March 2016 and is scheduled to be completed by the end of next year.
Meanwhile, NCDOT is also making plans to build a 2.4-mile bridge known as the “jug handle” that will carry N.C. 12 from the southern end of the Pea Island refuge over Pamlico Sound into Rodanthe. The bridge would bypass a section of N.C. 12 known as the “S-curves” that is vulnerable to being breached, as it was during Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
The planned start of construction on the $145 million Rodanthe bridge has been delayed by a lawsuit by two dozen property owners who argue that the bridge would harm tourism and property values in the area. NCDOT hopes the legal challenges can be settled in the coming months, allowing construction to begin in 2018, said spokesman Tim Hass.
It’s not clear how long the interim bridge will be needed. NCDOT says the new concrete bridge is better than the metal one it replaced and will be easier to maintain while the state looks for a permanent solution for Pea Island. Workers will soon begin dismantling the metal bridge, a process that will likely take until March to complete.
Traffic was supposed to begin flowing over the interim Pea Island bridge in April, under the $14.3 million contract between NCDOT and the contracting team, led by T.A. Loving Co. of Goldsboro. The contract said the contractors would be penalized $5,000 for every day after April 12 that the bridge was not open. Hass said the state has been withholding payments but that Loving Co. will get a chance to make its case that the delays were unavoidable after the project is over.