North Carolina can’t seem to stop promoting risky development on our fragile barrier islands. Recently the state built a new $53 million dollar bridge to make it easier to get to Topsail Island, and the 2.7-mile-long Oregon Inlet bridge was just replaced with a new one costing $250 million. The longest bridge in North Carolina, the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge across Croatan Sound, is slightly more than 5 miles in length and cost around $100 million in 2002. Now a plan has been approved to build a $500 million, the 6.2-mile-long Mid–Currituck Bridge to the Northern Outer Banks, at a huge cost of around a half-billion dollars.
The new bridge planned for Currituck Sound opens a shortened path for Virginia and Washington, D.C. tourists to come to our much-loved Outer Banks. According to the N & O, the new bridge would save “up to two hours of driving time (from Virginia) each way during busy summer weekends.” But this is not the time to encourage new development along the low-lying, fast-eroding Outer Banks, which increased ease of access surely will do. Intensified storms and sea level rise causing heightened erosion and building destruction on these particularly narrow northern Outer Banks islands make the new bridge a costly fool’s errand.
Some island stretches that will be served by this bridge may be gone in two or three decades, as the shoreline erodes, the island migrates, or as new inlets form. If not gone, they will be narrowed and the shorelines will be heavily armored with no beaches. In other words, this may well be a bridge to nowhere.
Whatever happens, the taxpayers are in for a drubbing. The bridge itself, federal flood insurance, storm recovery costs, managed retreat, infrastructure for the new and expanded communities, and perennial beach nourishment, all will be supported mostly by federal and state taxpayers.
Why the bridge? Follow the money, as the saying goes. On the Outer Banks, that leads to the money to be made with more tourists (from Virginia, in particular) and more facilities to entertain the tourists. Another justification for the bridge is providing a shorter and safer hurricane escape route. But, in time, the new bridge will also increase development and thereby expose a lot more people to the hurricane hazard.
In other parts of the world, the climate change lesson has already been learned and strategic retreat from shorelines is underway. In Holland, houses are being moved back in preparation for both sea level rise and increased river flooding. As I mentioned in an earlier N & O op ed, the French are demolishing buildings that are at high risk from future storms and revoking construction permits in hazardous areas. In northern Portugal, they are planning the same thing, including demolition of an $8 million beachfront building that was constructed originally for a world’s fair-type event. The Portuguese view is that saving endangered buildings can cost more than they are worth. The Cubans moved back a small village from an eroding shoreline and banned future building in high-risk locations. North Carolina is unique in considering establishing a major new beach tourist development in this time of high risks at the shoreline.
North Carolina once led the nation with important coastal management initiatives such as the 1985 prohibition of sea walls. Reversing the decision to build the half billion dollar Mid-Currituck Bridge would finally bring official recognition of sea level rise to North Carolina and once again place us in the national forefront of managing coasts.
Considering the social, environmental, political, and economic ramifications, construction of the bridge would be madness.
Orrin H. Pilkey is professor emeritus of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University.