State paid millions to builders while work stalled on Pea Island bridge
Posted July 10, 2015
Rodanthe, N.C. — Since last fall, idle construction equipment has lined the sandy coastline along N.C. Highway 12, just north of Rodanthe.
Crews were scheduled to replace a temporary steel bridge spanning a slice of Pea Island washed out by Hurricane Irene in 2011 with a more permanent solution. But amid a legal battle over the construction of a new Bonner Bridge, a crucial and aging link between Hatteras Island and mainland North Carolina, transportation officials halted work on the nearby Pea Island replacement bridge Sept. 9.
Although progress has stopped, the costs to the state haven't.
Records show North Carolina Department of Transportation officials have paid the Pea Island bridge contractor more than $5 million for equipment, traffic and environmental maintenance on the site since state officials issued the stop-work order.
Now, under the terms of a settlement with environmental groups over Bonner last month, officials have completely canceled the unfinished Pea Island bridge project, leaving the temporary steel structure locals call the "Lego bridge" in place. The construction has so far cost the state $13.8 million since it began in March 2014, and that price tag is likely to rise as the state finalizes the end of its agreement with the contractor.
Without much to show for it, spending on the bridge isn't sitting well with some area residents, who remain frustrated about the slow progress toward a new transportation lifeline for their coastal communities.
"It's such a giant waste of taxpayer money," Briggs McEwan, owner of Lisa's Pizzeria in Rodanthe, said. "It's just unbelievable."
Lawsuit prompted work stoppage, state says
The larger Bonner Bridge project, which includes the Pea Island structure as one of its components, has been in limbo for years after environmental groups sued over concerns construction would impact sensitive wildlife in the area. The state planned a $216 million bridge over Oregon Inlet to replace the existing Bonner Bridge built in 1963, which was meant to last only 30 years.
The legal skirmish has rankled local business owners, who rely on the thoroughfare for not just the influx of tourists, but also for infrastructure such as power and data connections.
"If something happens and we're disconnected, we immediately become a third-world country down here," Beth Midgett, who manages vacation rentals at Midgett Realty in Rodanthe, said.
Concerns over losing access spiked in December 2013, when DOT officials closed Bonner Bridge for emergency repairs. If a strong storm were to knock the bridge out of commission over the summer, McEwan said it would be devastating to business.
"We're basically depending on 10 weeks to make 75 to 80 percent of our income," he said. "If we lose a week, that's big."
Last month, DOT officials announced they had reached an agreement with the Southern Environmental Law Center to move forward with construction on the Bonner replacement after a compromise to remove some portions away from the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Specifically, the settlement required the state to cancel its contract with Parsons Construction Group to replace the temporary steel Lego bridge on Pea Island with something permanent over the now-dry inlet carved by Irene.
With $13.8 million already paid to Parsons, the state ended the prep work on the Pea Island bridge replacement June 15.
DOT officials say writing off that money, which includes the more than $5 million spent since the state stopped work at the site, was necessary to settle the lawsuit and move forward with the whole Bonner Bridge project.
"It's either we go through the process, we get the settlement agreement and we build a new bridge or continue to pour millions into maintaining one that's past its life cycle and also pay legal fees as we try to battle to see what's next," DOT spokesman Mike Charbonneau said.
The Southern Environmental Law Center says that, although ending the project was part of the settlement, the 2013 contract to build the Pea Island bridge wasn't part of the case the firm originally filed in 2011.
But in its announcement Sept. 10, DOT linked the suspension of work at Pea Island to an appeals court decision over the lawsuit issued a month earlier.
"That was their decision," Derb Carter, director of the SELC's Chapel Hill office, said. "We would have been perfectly content with [the contract] being rescinded so that those payments were not made."
Carter also said his firm alerted transportation officials while they were planning the Pea Island bridge project that it could be complicated by litigation.
"DOT was trying to figure out how to do the right thing at this point, so I'm not going to fault them for that," Carter said. "It's just how the situation evolved."
A spokesperson with Parsons referred all questions to state transportation officials.
McEwan talked to plenty of the contractor's workers when they frequented his Rodanthe restaurant during the stoppage, and he said he doesn't fault the company for the millions spent on the Pea Island project – even though it's going nowhere.
"They were sick over it. They said, 'We want to work,'" McEwan said. "They hated sitting down here."
Residents see some frustration, some optimism
The unused equipment along N.C. 12 has long been a discussion among locals passing by the site every day. The price tag of the project is a particular sore point.
"It just seems like it's ridiculous," said Bob Hovey, owner of Duck Village Outfitters, which has a shop in Salvo.
Hovey said that, despite the settlement, nearby residents remain angry at the SELC for stalling construction on the larger Bonner Bridge project.
"I don't think they have one single fan on the Outer Banks," Hovey said.
Others fault the environmental group for the waste.
"I can't believe how much power these lawyers have to put us in a stranglehold," McEwan said. "It's ludicrous."
While Carter said he understands the frustration of residents, he said his firm has gotten used to complaints during the last few decades it's been involved in the bridge project.
"We get blamed for a lot of things down there," he said. "We would hope the focus is on what's happening now and things going forward."
Midgett, who's been active in the Bonner Bridge replacement project for years, said it's important to keep the money the state's spent on the smaller Pea Island bridge in context.
"While it's money that feels wasteful, look at the tens of millions spent on Bonner Bridge trying to keep it up and going," she said, "and we essentially ended up with the same thing we started with."
Midgett said she's optimistic the settlement will mean a way forward on the Bonner project – even if it's still somewhat tempered by distrust. Given the history of the bridge's expenses and its necessity to locals, she said, $13.8 million on the unbuilt Pea Island structure is a small price to pay.
"I think it's worth it. I do," she said.
Hovey said the steel Lego bridge along N.C. 12 serves its purpose for now, especially since the inlet is mostly dry. Although sand has occasionally piled up on the narrow structure, it's mostly held up so far to the volatile coastal weather.
"We have seen a couple storms where the water from the Atlantic Ocean came right up to the road there," he said.
While the state moves forward with the construction of a parallel bridge to replace Bonner, the Lego bridge will eventually need a replacement too.
For that, transportation officials will start the bidding process over again for a new temporary bridge on Pea Island spanning just 3,000 feet. They're hoping construction on that bridge will begin in early 2016 and will wrap up a year and a half later.
Charbonneau said the state will recoup some of the costs from work at the site for future projects.
"They've done some widening work and other things that will live on and be a part of the future temporary bridge and the future long-term bridge down there," he said.
That permanent solution, which transportation officials are studying now, will link Bonner through N.C. 12 to a 2.5-mile "jug handle" bridge north of Rodanthe extending into Pamlico Sound.
Carter said those changes, which bypass the sensitive Pea Island refuge, make the long legal battle and the expense of false starts worth it both for the protection of wildlife and the long-term viability of N.C. 12.
"The outcome is a safer, more dependable bridge that will not be in the ocean in a few years, that will have much less impact on the national wildlife refuge," he said. "It's a better outcome than what was originally proposed."
On that point – for the first time in years – state officials and environmental groups agree.
"This has been 20 years it took to get to finally reach the settlement agreement that will allow us to move forward," Charbonneau said. "For all that's involved with that, we believe this is the best possible thing for the citizens and residents of North Carolina."