Nags Head, N.C. — Transportation and environmental agencies agreed on Monday to move forward with the first phase of a plan to replace the aging Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, which connects Hatteras Island with the mainland.
Officials endorsed replacing the 2.5-mile bridge with a short bridge built parallel to the existing one. The project is estimated to cost between $294 million and $347 million.
Bonner Bridge, which opened in 1963, has a sufficiency rating of 2, with 100 being the best. State transportation officials say it is safe to cross, however, and a repair project is scheduled to start later this year.
Officials rejected two versions of a 17.5-mile bridge that would bypass Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge for cost reasons. That project would have cost an estimated $930 million to $1.4 billion.
Instead, they identified the short bridge plan as the "least environmentally damaging practicable alternative," in a statement issued by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, state Department of Transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Highway Administration North Carolina Division.
The agreement does not give final approval to the short-bridge plan, officials emphasized. The agencies agreed that more environmental impact studies still need to be done.
"The environment in the study area is complex and constantly changing. The ability to predict the effect of Mother Nature's future impact on the study area is extremely difficult to quantify," the joint statement issued by the agencies read.
"The shoreline alone is continually moving and unexpected storms will exacerbate the uncertainties. The environment present today can be changed overnight by Mother Nature," the statement continued.
DOT will be responsible for preparing a final environmental impact study before any permits are approved for the first phase of the short bridge project.
Officials also agreed to move forward with the next stages of the short bridge project according to future needs and environmental conditions, including the erosion rate.
Those subsequent phases include improvements to N.C. Highway 12 south of the bridge, including relocating the road and short, elevated bridges. That work would also be done within the easements of the existing bridge, as far as possible.
The cost of the shorter bridge, combined with the road improvements, is estimated to be between $1.1 billion and $1.3 billion.