This story was compiled from reports in The Island Free Press and the Outer Banks Voice
RODANTHE — The N.C. Department of Transportation and the Southern Environmental Law Center are working toward a compromise that would allow work to begin on the stalled replacement for the aging Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet in Dare County.
A joint statement last week from the DOT and the law center was short on details but indicated that the agreement calls for moving ahead with a new bridge parallel to the 50-year-old-span in exchange for a different long-term solution to storm-battered N.C. 12.
The statement said the confidential discussions were behind the decision two weeks ago to suspend construction of a $79.7 million permanent bridge over the inlet cut by Hurricane Irene in August 2011 in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
The News and Observer of Raleigh reported that the law center will agree to the parallel bridge in exchange for abandoning plans to elevate N.C. 12 over hotspots prone to damage from storm surf and breaches. Instead, the road continue south through the northern end of the refuge, then go over the Pamlico sound for seven miles to Rodanthe, the N&O said.
Presumably, that would eliminate plans for the bridge at the new inlet and at the S-Curves just north of Rodanthe.
The new concept is outlined in a PowerPoint presentation that DOT gave when the department met recently with the N.C.12 merger team, comprised of state and federal resource and regulatory agencies, to brief members on the status of the project and solicit feedback.
The new concept is labeled “future extension concept” on a map of the area that is included in the PowerPoint. DOT said it is “under consideration” in the discussions.
On the graphic of the northern Rodanthe area and the options included on page 22 of the PowerPoint there are two revised options for the northern Rodanthe bridge in new locations, labeled “2014 revised A” and “2014 revised B.”
Both of those options bring the bridge in closer to the island than the 2013 proposal for the bridge to avoid as much as possible the submerged aquatic vegetation out further in the sound. The National Marine Fisheries Service raised the issue of the effect of a bridge in the sound on fisheries because of possible harm to the aquatic vegetation.
Work has been stalled on the Bonner Bridge replacement since the law center mounted a legal challenge after a contract was awarded two years ago. It contended that the bridge and N.C. 12 should have been considered as one project rather than in two phases.
Last month, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of both sides. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said that highway planners had complied with federal policy in their environmental review of the project, affirming much of a ruling last year by a U.S. District Court judge.
But the appeals panel ordered the judge to take a closer look at her opinion that DOT and the Federal Highway Administration were exempt from certain regulations that would apply to construction along N.C. 12 in the refuge.
The appeals panel said it was not convinced that plans for a public road — N.C. 12 — and the establishment of the refuge in 1938 were “concurrent,” which was the basis of the exemption.
Environmental groups have argued that a 17-mile bridge over the Pamlico Sound bypassing the refuge is the best alternative.
The Bonner Bridge and N.C. 12 are the only route to communities south of Oregon Inlet. The road, however, frequently washes out and has been shut down after storms in recent years, most notably Hurricanes Sandy and Irene.
“Following a complex ruling issued by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, both sides determined that it was best to move forward with confidential discussions to resolve the bridge dispute,” the joint statement said.
“We remain committed to building a new parallel bridge over the Oregon Inlet to ensure the safety of Outer Banks residents and visitors,” said Transportation Secretary Tony Tata. “We have been in conversations with the SELC about the Bonner Bridge project for more than a year and believe these recent proactive discussions are a positive step toward a permanent solution.”
“We are continuing to work together with NCDOT to resolve this matter with a reliable, long-term solution that ensures the safety of the traveling public and avoids the problems that currently threaten N.C. 12,” said Derb Carter, director of the North Carolina offices of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The statement said that no more information would be provided until the issue is resolved.
“We know how crucial N.C. 12 is to connectivity for residents and visitors of the Outer Banks and I applaud our joint negotiations to resolve this matter as quickly as possible,” said Gov. Pat McCrory.