Local News

Gabrielle Stirs Up Bonner Bridge Controversy

Posted September 10, 2007 10:15 p.m. EDT

— Tropical Storm Gabrielle caused minimal damage to the Outer Banks, but it did renew the debate about the safety of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge.

The 2.5-mile bridge straddles the Oregon Inlet in Dare County. It is the only road to Hatteras Island.

At the height of the summer season, an estimated 15,000 vehicles travel over the bridge daily. Some of the travelers are tourists going to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The attraction has an estimated 2 million visitors a year.

"Everybody is just very concerned," said bridge advocate Beth Midgett. "I drive it several times a week."

In a recent inspection, the Bonner Bridge earned 2 out of a possible 100 points, with 100 being a perfect score. To improve the structure, the state approved $50 million for repairs.

"It's scary, when you look at what happened in Minneapolis. You think, 'Oh my God!  That bridge was 48 points higher than what we're dealing with here," said Midgett.

State and federal officials have decided to build a relatively short bridge parallel to the Bonner Bridge to take its place. The competing proposal was for a much longer and less direct bridge.

Midgett leads a group called Replace the Bridge Now. The grass-roots organization is tired of delays in building the new bridge.

County officials said permits for the new bridge could be issued within a year.

Dare County officials concede the 43-year-old bridge is showing its age, but they said the driving public is not in danger.

"For the motoring public, the bridge is safe," said Sandy Sanderson, Dare County's emergency-management director. "If it wasn't safe, we would be seeing them do things like restricting weight and restricting hours or that sort of thing, but they haven't done that."

Allen Burrus, a Dare County commissioner representing Hatteras Island, is frustrated by the government red tape he said is delaying the new bridge construction.

"It just amazes me that any process for the public good will take that long to make a decision and do it," said Burrus.

"A plan was chosen. A lot of thought was put into it. Let's get on with it. Let's issue the permits, call it the life and safety danger that it is right now and move forward appropriately," said Midgett.

Midgett said some environmental groups are calling for a federal investigation into the building of the new bridge. They want the construction to bypass the Pea Island Wildlife Nature Preserve, but that could result in a much longer structure.

As it stands, it could be another four to six years before any construction gets under way. The project is estimated to cost between $294 million and $347 million.

While the debate about the Hatteras bridge continued, there were also big problems Monday for motorists at Wrightsville Beach. The main drawbridge onto the island came down on a sailboat. The man on board the sailboat was not hurt, but the drawbridge was out of service for a while, causing a major traffic jam.