State News

US appeals panel reverses Outer Banks bridge work

Posted August 6, 2014

Bonner Bridge

— A federal appeals court panel on Wednesday unanimously rejected North Carolina's plan to replace a crucial Outer Banks bridge without rerouting a state highway away from a wildlife refuge.

The dispute centers on a plan to replicate the existing 2.5-mile Bonner Bridge across Oregon Inlet at a cost of $216 million. The bridge is the only span connecting the mainland to Hatteras Island and was designed to last 30 years when built in 1963.

Construction has been blocked by a lawsuit by environmental groups, who favor a 17-mile bridge that would bypass the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The route favored by environmentalists would require building the second-longest bridge in the United States at a cost of more than $1 billion, state transportation officials said.

Environmentalists counter that changing the route would also help avoid recurring problems with the current road, which is frequently rendered impassable by water and sand kicked up by storms.

"At the heart of this case are the past and future of the Outer Banks," Judge James Wynn wrote for the three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. "The effects of time threaten the structural integrity of the Bonner Bridge, while large storms and changing coastal conditions threaten the viability of the non-elevated portions of North Carolina Highway 12 south of the Bonner Bridge."

The appeals court overruled a federal judge's order last September allowing North Carolina an exception to laws protecting a wildlife refuge.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation focused on the portion of the appellate court decision that upheld a lower court ruling that the state complied with the National Environmental Policy Act in proposing the replacement bridge as the least environmentally harmful alternative.

"With a second court now ruling that NCDOT complied with the National Environmental Policy Act, we’re hopeful the (Southern Environmental Law Center) will drop its remaining lawsuits so the state can move forward in building the vital Bonner Bridge replacement for the citizens and visitors of the Outer Banks," DOT spokesman Mike Charbonneau said in a statement.

Transportation Secretary Tony Tata last year described the SELC as "ivory tower elitists." The center's attorneys were fighting in court "with their lattes and their contempt, and chuckle while the good people of the Outer Banks are fighting hard to scratch out a living here based on tourism and based on access," Tata said.

SELC attorney Julie Youngman countered that Tata was distracting people from the DOT's failure to plan a reliable route that would not be repeatedly washed out in coming decades.

Opponents to the replacement bridge have argued that the state's plan leaves out the cost of moving or maintaining about 12 miles of N.C. 12 through the wildlife refuge. The highway has been breached by new inlets twice in the past several years. Environmentalists said the shorter bridge will be useless without additional infrastructure construction.

The road was closed for three days early last month after waves churned by Hurricane Arthur caused a small section of the fragile roadway to buckle. The bridge was closed for nearly two weeks in December because sand had washed away from the bridge supports.


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  • JustOneGodLessThanU Aug 7, 2014

    I guarantee you that Environmentalists don't want a 15-mile just may beat the suggested alternatives.

    There are some other good suggestions here: temporary military bridge or ferry.

    These people to chose to make an investment on an island...and this has been a problem for a Really Long Time. So, why are we bailing them out? They live on sand...on the front line of major storms... talk about flood zones...sheesh.

    News Flash: Storms will hit this island and destroy homes, bridges, roads, etc. This will continue to happen long after we are all gone.

  • JustOneGodLessThanU Aug 7, 2014

    This Billion $$ is just another Entitlement for people living on or having 2nd and 3rd homes island.

    Why don't we make people take responsibility for themselves? ...for their investments? ...for their choices?

    If you're Conservative, why would you disagree with this? Maybe just pretend that these are poor people getting this entitlement. ;-)

  • JustOneGodLessThanU Aug 7, 2014

    View quoted thread

    They are our birds...our waters...our wildlife...yours and mine. If you prefer concrete over nature, why would you go to the beach?

  • Mannin Black Aug 7, 2014
    user avatar

    I am on both sides of the bridge on this one. I side with the environmentalist on many issues but not this one. I do not think 17 mile bridge is feasible unless they are will to help raise the funds for construction. Not all the funds, just the difference in the cost of the original planned construction.
    My opinion on the other side of the bridge is that as long as we continue to allow development and traffic on these barrier islands, this will be a rinse and repeat storm after storm and not just the bridge. Year after year tax money is wasted to rebuild the roads, businesses and houses knowing that they will have to be bailed out again next year.

  • Matt Wood Aug 7, 2014
    user avatar

    @FromWRALsCommentBlackHole - I believe those portable roads/bridges are meant for short-term use and would not be able to withstand the constant use over 30+ years.

    @Ms. Skeptical - These groups exist first and foremost to protect the environment and animals, but many businesses could care less as long as they can make their money, to use your words, "a fact which many misinformed and propagandized citizens don't know."

    @Ms. Skeptical, Katzlover, -VA-, OHMYGOSH: You don't seem to realize that a huge portion of Outer Banks tourists go specifically because of the wildlife (they are a major refuge for wintering birds, which draw a large amount of bird-watching tourists). Additionally, birds are an important part of the ecosystem (I'm sure residents would just LOVE to be covered in pests when all the birds are gone). And if you think the current road/bridge doesn't harm anything, what do you think causes all the dead animals on the side of the road?

  • hudpir8 Aug 7, 2014

    John, you are correct, most of us are in favor of environmental protection. the problem here is REASONABLE protection. currently the law calls for a 27 acre buffer for one bird contemplating a nest. that bird is neither endangered or a protected species. In the 6+ years this law has been effect, the NPS has trapped and killed almost 3000 (yes that's 3 thousand) natural predators of these birds (cats included) and the total birds hatched in that same span is less than one hundred. This isn't reasonable to any one except the "defenders of wildlife" law group. All anyone is asking for is reasonable protection for wildlife while remaining what the park was established for, a RECREATIONAL seashore.

  • Anita Woody Aug 7, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Wrong. Maybe you should read up on the fast track the governor is asking for since the sand beneath the pillars washed away recently, rendering it unsafe and closing it.

  • ohmygosh Aug 7, 2014

    Environmentalists would prefer a world with no humans -- except for an elite few of themselves.

    BTW, how is the existing bridge harming the wildlife of the area they want to protect? A one for one replacement most likely would be no worse.

    The reality is the $1B bridge will never get built. Ferries will never be sufficient to supply the everyday needs of the island -- especially during tourist season.

    This decision is an economic disaster for NC and the Outer Banks.

  • John McCray Aug 7, 2014
    user avatar

    Not that I am for fencing off the Outer Banks and not allowing people on the island, but I seriously doubt that people don't care if the birds and other wildlife go extinct and their sole desire to go to the Outer Banks is to sit on a spit of sand covered in mosquitoes. If that were the case, people would be laying out on all the spoil bars in the sounds as well as the beach.

    I think some of you would be surprised at how many people that visit the Outer Banks are in favor of some environmental and ecological protection.

  • redfish Aug 7, 2014

    Replacing the current bridge and maintaining Rt 12 guarantees public access to the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge. The alternatives do not.