WRAL Investigates

Rebuilding NC 12: Saving a vital link or throwing money in the ocean?

Posted November 19, 2012

— Since the early 1990s, taxpayers have spent more than $30 million repairing a vulnerable stretch of N.C. Highway 12 after storms battered the Outer Banks, according to the state Department of Transportation. Some areas have been fixed multiple times, with help from federal and state tax dollars.

By some measures, N.C. 12 is one of the most expensive and vulnerable roads in the state. Critics say the state is wasting money in a relentless battle between nature and man. But supporters say the more than 100-mile stretch of road that runs from Corolla to Ocracoke is a vital link and must be saved.

“It is a continuous battle, and I think the ocean is stronger than we are,” said East Carolina University geologist Dorothea Ames. “Highway 12 can no longer exist in some areas that are too narrow, because there is nowhere else to move it.”

History shows, Ames says, that many of the popular beach towns won’t be around forever. The Outer Banks' barrier islands earned their name by shielding the coastal mainland from the ocean’s surging waves and storms, according to the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.

NC Highway 12 damage Images: NC 12 damage after Hurricane Sandy

The question is, how much money and effort should the state pour into rebuilding a highway that storms will eventually destroy again.

Years before Hurricane Irene hit in 2011, Ames and her fellow researchers raised a red flag. They created a map in 2008 showing areas they felt were most in danger. Three years later, that prediction cut a path through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Engineers put a temporary bridge over that new inlet, which was just part of the $12 million spent to repair Irene's road damage.

Taxpayers spent about $2.4 million after Hurricane Isabel in 2003, more than $500,000 following the 2006 Thanksgiving nor’easter and up to $10 million this year after Hurricane Sandy. Federal tax money covers up to 80 percent of repairs when a natural disaster is declared.

Since 2001, taxpayers have spent more than $100 million on N.C. 12, including maintenance, construction, bridge repair and storm-related costs.

David Mallinson, who is part of the research team with Ames, predicts the price tag to keep the road together over the next century could top $1 billion. “There’s no doubt we’re throwing money in the ocean,” Mallinson said. “We just can't keep doing this forever."

Business and tourism officials say saving N.C. 12 is a necessity.

“It makes no sense that we're having that conversation,” said Dare County Manager Bobby Outten, who says tourists spent more than $877 million in his county last year. Dare County covers 800 square miles, including 391 square miles of land and 409 square miles of water.

Outten argues the money spent on N.C. 12 is a drop in the bucket compared with the economic impact the Outer Banks brings to North Carolina. “To say, ‘Let it wither away,’ … again, I say it would be an economic calamity and makes no fiscal sense at all,” Outten said.

To those who believe inland taxpayers subsidize futile beach road building, Outten says that’s nonsense. “They don't subsidize us. We subsidize the state. We send out more than we get back,” he said.

NC Highway 12 damage Rebuilding NC 12: Saving a vital link or throwing money in the ocean?

Natalie Kavanagh's family makes a living off the allure of the Outer Banks. The family’s supply store, Frisco Rod and Gun, and grocery store reel in the fishermen and beachgoers alike.

“Without the road and the bridge, we would be a ghost town,” Kavanagh said. “This is a place people love. They love this place like a person. They want to be here.”

Locals contend turning to a more comprehensive ferry system couldn't keep up. In the height of the summer, an estimated 10,000 vehicles travel south on N.C. 12 each day. A ferry can hold 40 cars. “There's no way to build enough ferries and dock space,” Outten said.

Mike Mulchi, an annual visitor from Wake Forest, says he thinks it's time to do more than slap more pavement on the shifting sand.

“Why not put this money toward something that's going to be permanent, something that will allow the ocean to come and go?” he said. “I just say we do what we've got to do to keep our history and our heritage right here.”

Federal and state environmental restrictions drastically limited efforts to reinforce the road. There are strict guidelines, particularly in and around the wildlife refuge, that prevent hardened structures and beach re-nourishment.

Meanwhile, the state DOT has identified six hot spots along N.C. 12 that are most at-risk, from Pea Island down to Ocracoke, and hopes to rise above the water with bridges.

State engineers recommend building bridges to replace a temporary span in the wildlife refuge and another at a trouble spot near Rodanthe, for a combined cost of $213 million. Those plans remain on hold, though, until an environmental court battle over the $215 million Bonner Bridge replacement can be resolved.

“We can't just engineer our way out of this. We can't just build a big dike,” Mallinson said.

Researchers say allowing new inlets to form will strengthen the Outer Banks with natural over wash. “We need the barrier islands to do their thing and let storms impact them,” Ames said.

The highway doesn't have history on its side. Since the 1950s, the water has chased back the road in the Buxton area, moving the shoreline several times, and shows no signs of stopping.

“The island isn't going to wake up one morning and be gone. As things change, we'll adapt and do what we have to do,” Outten said.


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  • heisenberg Nov 28, 2012

    Throwing money in the ocean.

  • wcjudge Nov 27, 2012

    To those of you who say 'toll the road' or 'buy the land' you need to be careful what you ask for. Dare County is a 'donor' County ot the State. We send millions of more dollars to Raleigh in Revenue than the State spends on Dare County. Regardless of what figure you quote for the last 30 years we have built more roads, repaired more roads, moved more rock off of mountain roads and plowed more snow off roads outside of Dare County then has been spent in Dare County. We have built your Schools and Government buildings, we have help pay the salareis of tens of thousands of State Employees who work all across the State. Dare County has never complained about these monies spent through out the State. What do you have against this money. Did you complain when the forest fire was fought down east last year or in past years in the Mountains. After the Hurricanes that ravaged the mountains several years ago, did you complain about the Emergency Management money spent in those Counties.

  • uragoner2 Nov 26, 2012

    Make 12 a toll road to pay the repair cost. Leave the rest of the states taxpayers out of this money flusher.

  • bobftodler Nov 23, 2012

    If those that choose to live there want tio stay then they need to pay for the road. The rest of the state should not have to make good on their risky deciscions. Turn it into a park accessible by boat. Keep the ferries going and save the maintenance costs on the Oregan inlet bridge, which will no longer be needed. Let the folks stay in Rodanthe and Salvo if their property wasn't wiped out. But it will be boat access only.

  • djofraleigh Nov 21, 2012

    Let's take the next $30 million, condemn the land and buy it to make it into a state refuge and seashore accessible by boat and some ferry crossing.

  • tarheelzzzz Nov 20, 2012

    It seems the majority of people prefer a bridge, if anything. However, how many politicians actually do what the majority of the people want? It is ridiculous to continue building this road every time a storm comes through, which is quite often, since this area of the state juts out the way it does. Even IF the county made the equivalent in tax dollars, which I highly doubt...is it fair that all of their tax dollars pay for their one road, while the rest of us have to provide taxes for the other 99 counties? I think not. Most of the highway to the beaches have bridges over the intercoastal waterway. It would seem that a permanent "fix" makes much more sense than continuing, storm after storm, repairing this highway. Also, access to this area for the residents and tourists, would be available much sooner than it is now, in times of evacuation. Please, stop wasting North Carolinians tax dollars!!!

  • hp277 Nov 20, 2012

    This is a crazy waste of money. It's like providing flood insurance for buildings in a floodplain and paying to rebuild over and over and over.

    No way does the tax revenue from OBX visitors come close to covering these repair costs. Every driver in NC is subsidizing NC Hwy 12 at the expense of the roads we all use every day.

  • southerntalent Nov 20, 2012

    Let the diehards who choose to live and own business and property in the areas fund it themselves,do not use public funds

  • brotorious Nov 20, 2012

    Time to quit pumping money into this one. Unless you want to change the entire elevation of the island, you are going to have the same problems. Fixing this road is like raking leaves. Everytime you finish, you have to start all over again.

  • whatelseisnew Nov 20, 2012

    Well the good news is, once the oceans rise by eighty feet we will not be fixing this road anymore. thank god for global warming.