Reprinted from The Island Free Press
MOREHEAD CITY — The N.C. Division of Coastal Management yesterday issued a Coastal Area Management Act major permit to the state Department of Transportation to build a replacement for the 50-year-old Herbert C. Bonner Bridge in Dare County and to demolish the existing bridge after the new structure is completed.
The permit was issued following a 30-day public comment period, and reviews by four federal and 10 state agencies.
The division has worked closely with DOT and other state agencies throughout the planning and development process for this project.
DOT plans to replace the existing 2.4-mile, two-lane bridge over the Oregon Inlet and related approaches with a new 2.8-mile two-lane bridge that will be built parallel and just to the west of the existing bridge. DOT awarded a $215 million contract for the new bridge in July 2011.
Over the next four months, DOT anticipates receiving federal permits and easements from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Coast Guard, the National Park Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Upon receiving these permits and easements, DOT hopes to start construction in early 2013, pending the outcome of an ongoing lawsuit. Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed a lawsuit in July 2011 to stop the construction of a parallel bridge.
They claim in the lawsuit that DOT’s bridge plans fail to include how the state will maintain a safe access route to the bridge through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. N.C. 12, the only road to the bridge, is exposed through the refuge and frequently washes out. The groups say the road is expected to become increasingly eroded over coming years. By ignoring the problem inherent in the plan, DOT traps the state and its residents into hidden costs and environmentally damaging methods, including nourishing the beach, building dunes and phasing in and continually repairing a series of additional bridges and road segments through the refuge, the groups note.
Hurricane Isabel highlighted the vulnerability of N.C. 12 through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge by blowing the road out in two places.
They prefer a 17-mile bridge out into the Pamlico Sound, which would come ashore in northern Rodanthe.
In their complaint, the groups charge that the Federal Highway Administration and DOT violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it decided to build the parallel bridge. The lawsuit is in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina and has been assigned to Judge Louise Flanagan in New Bern.
This is a multi-phase project that includes replacing the existing bridge over Oregon Inlet and providing for the long-term retention of N.C. 12 between Oregon Inlet and Rodanthe.
The first phase of the project will build the new bridge just west of where the Bonner Bridge currently stands. The second phase includes implementing long-term solutions for the major breaches on Pea Island and Rodanthe caused by Hurricane Irene in August 2011.
The exact plan for implementing future phases will be determined, based on the department’s active coastal monitoring program. This helps NCDOT decide where and when to make improvements to N.C. 12 from the south end of the Bonner Bridge to Rodanthe. Any of the alternatives (beach nourishment, road relocation and bridging) previously studied as part of the project’s original environmental analysis could be considered for future phases.
The earliest the bridge would be completed is 2015. Much of the existing bridge is scheduled to be demolished, but a portion will remain as a fishing pier.