bonner-bridge_500Linking the northern Outer Banks with Hatteras Island, the Bonner Bridge was completed in 1963 and had a planned life span of 40 years, so there is a certain amount of urgency to replacing it. The current bridge has just had some pretty extensive repairs, so it’s fully capable of handling traffic for the next three or four years, and that’s just about the length of time NCDOT needs to complete their planned parallel span.

Well  . . . not so fast.

Plans for replacing the Bonner Bridge have been challenged in court by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) on behalf of a number of environmental groups. Filing suit in late June on the same day NCDOT asked for bids on the project, the SELC suit claims “ . . . the Federal Highway Administration and N.C. Department of Transportation’s planned replacement fails to include how they will maintain a safe access route to the bridge via oceanfront Highway 12 through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge . . .”

In response NCDOT has written, “The N.C. Department of Transportation has reviewed the Bonner Bridge lawsuit filed by national organizations, and finds that the information presented has already been studied and addressed numerous times over the past 20 years . . . Therefore, the department will continue moving forward with awarding a contract for this . . . project. . . .The department is committed to providing Outer Banks residents and visitors with a safe, reliable and environmentally responsible way to get where they need to go. By replacing the 49-year-old bridge, NCDOT will honor that commitment.”

At the heart of controversy are two very different visions about how to connect Hatteras Island with the rest of the world.

Most environmental groups favor creating a brand new parallel bridge corridor in the Pamlico Sound. The parallel corridor would be about 17.5 miles long and would connect Rodanthe with the north shore of Oregon inlet completely bypassing Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

The plan selected by NCDOT and the Federal Highway Administration will build a parallel span to the west of the existing bridge and make landfall just south of the current location. Because Pea Island is an extraordinarily dynamic section of coastline, Environmental Impact Statements that have been filed have included a number proposals for dealing with ongoing problems as they occur. The plan’s official title is “Parallel Bridge with Phased Approach.”

Because it never enters Pea Island, the 17.5 mile Pamlico Sound bridge would overcome a number of environmental concerns that will have to be addressed going forward with the phased approach. However, at a price tag of approximately $1.5 billion, it was rejected two years ago by highway engineers as too expensive–and government finances have hardly improved in the past two years.

Interestingly, the phased approach costs just about the same amount of money, but the cost will be spread out over 40-50 years.

This is actually a very complex issue with a lot of parts to it and there is only so much room to discuss these issues in a blog. However, if some of our readers would like us to examine this in more detail, let us know and we’ll post some more information.