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Legal tangles block Bonner Bridge replacement

Posted December 4, 2013 6:08 p.m. EST
Updated December 4, 2013 7:23 p.m. EST

— The state has a plan and funding to replace Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks, but two lawsuits have put those plans on hold.

Built in 1963 for $4 million, the bridge linking Hatteras Island to the mainland was designed to last only 30 years. As far back as 1989, the state Department of Transportation planned on replacing the bridge, but obstacles piled up along the way.

In 1990, a runaway dredge badly damaged the bridge and shut it down for nearly four months. Coastal storms chewed away at the aging bridge in subsequent years, racking up $56 million in repairs over the past 23 years.

The DOT analyzed and debated various Bonner Bridge replacements to keep traffic flowing, including a 17-mile span across Pamlico Sound that bypassed the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Instead of that $1.15 billion plan, officials chose a $216 million bridge that parallels Bonner Bridge but is designed to withstand erosion.

Construction was set to start months ago, but environmental court battles continue to keep the replacement on hold.

"Their plan is going to turn a rare and unique wildlife refuge into a 50-year construction zone," Julie Youngman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Wednesday.

SELC is one of the plaintiffs challenging the plan to replace Bonner Bridge, and spokeswoman Kathleen Sullivan said the organization has tried to work with DOT on finding ways to pay for the longer bridge.

"We engaged in discussions with NCDOT to search for a more reliable route that avoids areas prone to wash-out and were discouraged when NCDOT abruptly ended those discussions recently," Sullivan said in an email.

Although a federal judge sided with the state in September over the replacement bridge, the decision has been appealed.

Transportation Secretary Tony Tata and local officials criticized the legal challenge on Wednesday as they discussed the emergency repair efforts to the existing bridge, which was closed Tuesday because excessive underwater erosion around its base left it vulnerable to collapse.

"These ivory tower elitists file these lawsuits," Tata said.

"I'm not so grateful about the stupidity of what these environmental nuts are doing to us down here," said Sen. Bill Cook, R-Dare.

Youngman said such rhetoric won't help Hatteras Island residents get a new bridge.