Long-term solution for NC 12 elusive

Posted August 31, 2011

— State transportation engineers have a week to devise a plan to get traffic flowing again quickly on Hatteras Island, where the sole overland link to the mainland was severed by Hurricane Irene.

Finding a more permanent traffic solution for N.C. Highway 12 will be more problematic, however.

Irene ripped two gaping holes in N.C. 12 – one in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and the other one north of Rodanthe – and the ocean now rushes through new inlets at both locations.

"I really don't think there's a permanent solution in a situation like this," Billy Edge, a North Carolina State University professor who specializes in coastal engineering, said Wednesday.

Building on a constantly shifting island is a huge challenge, Edge said. Filling in the areas that washed out with new sand and rebuilding the highway could simply lead to another washout.

"The inlet either fills in or maybe it expands, and if it expands, (a) bridge wouldn't be adequate," he said.

The state Department of Transportation has already rejected building a long bridge to the island that would bypass the Pea Island refuge but cost more than $1 billion.

Some have suggested turning N.C. 12 into a toll road, so that people who travel to Hatteras Island would pay for its construction and maintenance. Others have called for scrapping the road altogether and ramping up a ferry system to serve all parts of the island.

Damage to NC 12 presents no easy solution

Photos of Hurricane Irene's impact in on N.C. Highway 12 by Donny Bowers. Duke prof on NC 12: 'Move it or lose it'

Residents like Don Bowers, who lives in Frisco at the southern end of the island, said relying solely on ferries would not only complicate mass evacuations, it also would keep tourists away.

"I think a ferry system would economically just ruin this place," Bowers said. "People just wouldn't be able to make a living down here."

Edge suggested moving N.C. 12 in some places and raising the road.

"Make it higher, and in the process, we bring in material that's resistant to erosion," he said.

That solution also would be expensive, and any hardened structure conflicts with the natural processes of Hatteras. Any long-term plan would have to meet guidelines set forth in an environmental impact study.

Orrin Pilkey, the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology Earth & Ocean Sciences at Duke University, said N.C. 12 must be moved to correspond to natural shifts in Hatteras Island. The cost of maintaining the highway as is will become too expensive, he said.

"They must move it or lose it," Pilkey said. "Some imagination and creativity is going to be required."

Like the moving sand, finding balance between economic and environmental interests remains elusive.

"To balance those two is something I can't do. That's why we pay politicians," Edge said.

Locations where N.C. 12 is washed out:

View NC Highway 12 damage in a larger map


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  • silverflash Sep 2, 2011

    i wonder how many precious poping plivers (i know, piping plovers) were lost in the hurricane and have had their homes uprooted?

    i say do the ferry thing and don't even build a road, besides in the sand. you will need 4x4 but most everyone does anyhow nowadays.

  • Lena Sep 2, 2011

    I think there will need to be a way to access the OBX. I’m not sure there is a “permanent” fix to the problem of shifting sands and currents. The 1st question to answer for current and future storms: should new inlets be left intact or closed off? There is a history of inlets forming and closing at the OBX and it may be better in the long run to leave some new inlets open.

    I like the idea of building cheap(er) roads and repairing in places where repair is warranted. Visitors might have to slow down over (perhaps) gravel temporary roads, but they would be able to get through.

    At some new inlets, inexpensive bridging could be installed and modified as needed. Presumably any houses that were there are gone already so that wouldn’t be much of an issue.

    In short, big expensive “permanent” solutions probably aren't the answer.

  • Capt Mercury Sep 1, 2011

    The folks who own property on these migrating sand bars need to take a good close look at all the aerial photos of the new inlets. They all opened up where vegetation was missing or only recently planted. Older groves of vegetation on more substantial mounds of sand are still there. Over time, it's all going to turn over and over as it rolls towards the west as sea levels rise (as they have been doing since the last ice age). Now they are rising faster. Get the picture? There really is no "real estate" on shifting barrier islands.

    You pays your money and you takes your chances out there. Don't expect the rest of the state to support your risky decisions when they go sour as they just did last week, and in 2003, and in 1999, and in 1996, and............

  • dk12 Sep 1, 2011

    when you think ferry?? are you thinking the ones currently in use..I'm not..think air foil type they use in Europe..yea..ones that travel on land and water..forget the road.

    I do like the idea of low bridges over trouble spots..could these be made with strong pilings and weak spans? then remove the spans before a storm..the replace them after? just thinking out loud

  • olspaceace Sep 1, 2011

    how about a floating military bailey bridge.

  • boneymaroney13 Sep 1, 2011

    WRAL what do you mean,"Long-term solution for NC 12 elusive"? Stop proping up the insurance industry and throwing away money on "wash-away roads" down there. There's your "elusive solution".

  • hp277 Sep 1, 2011

    "....Ummm, I think you have that backwards. The state derives a great deal of revenue from the tourism from the OBX. Doing anything to hinder access to the OBX is shooting the taxpayer in the foot."

    If there is so much money being made from tourism on OBX, why do you need a subsidy from the rest of the state to keep your road open?

    What would be so bad about returning to the time before the Bonner bridge and serve the area with ferries, just like Okracoke? Just let Pea Island move as nature intended.

  • Rebelyell55 Sep 1, 2011

    Stop fighting Mother nature. A road, or other structure won't work for long. The ones on the island may not like it, but the ferry system has the best chance of survival. Yes it'll take longer, but this " I want it now, quick and easy" has got to stop. There is no endless supply of money. Also, the ferry system will not stop tourist from visiting.

  • mrduffin Sep 1, 2011

    Supporters of rebuilding the washed out road says the Outer Banks is a profit machine for the state. If that is the way to solve the problem is to sell the island to private developers. Since there is so much money to be made selling it should not be a problem. But the truth is no one would buy it because it is a money pit....not a money maker.

  • davidbh61255 Sep 1, 2011

    Just throw the money in the water!!