Outer Banks highway debate: Rebuild or try something new?

Now that Hurricane Irene has mangled N.C. Highway 12 and breached sections of the road, the debate begins again about whether to rebuild or try something new.

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RODANTHE, N.C. — It’s a scene Outer Banks residents have seen over and over – a storm washes away part of N.C. Highway 12, and the state spends millions to repair it.

The highway is more than just a road along the coast. Some say it’s a symbol of the famous Outer Banks, a lure for tourists and the lifeline that connects the villages along Hatteras Island.

Now that Hurricane Irene has mangled it so badly that sections of the road have washed away, the debate begins again about whether to rebuild or try something new.

"We're going to do something to allow those (island residents and tourists) access to the mainland," Gov. Beverly Perdue said Tuesday. "They cannot be there without the opportunity to have a road or a bridge or something to get them off."

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan said that she also is committed to rebuilding N.C. 12.

"It is a lifeline to the community that has been here for many, many, many years," Hagan said. "It's a way of life that's really a part of North Carolina. I think very much that we need to do what we can to get that open as soon as possible."

Island resident Trip Forman said he and his neighbors count on the road being rebuilt.

"I have a lot of confidence that they'll get it done. As to how quickly they can get it done, I haven't really seen the roads yet, so it's hard to tell," Forman said.

Stanley Riggs, a geology professor at East Carolina University, is one of the people questioning the decision to rebuild. He says the state's efforts to protect N.C. 12 have disrupted the Outer Banks' natural migration toward the west and that, as a consequence, the islands are shrinking.

"Anybody (who) thinks they can put something on the front side of a mobile pile of sand is fooling themselves," Riggs said. “The (barrier islands) are going to collapse. Every time we have a storm now, you're going to see more and more breaches, more and more inlets moving through there."

He suggested scrapping the highway and using high-tech ferries to get people on and off Hatteras Island.

On Monday, three conservation groups called on the state to rethink its plan of replacing Bonner Bridge, which connects the north end of the island to the northern Outer Banks. Instead, the state should build a “safer, more reliable access route for Outer Banks residents and tourists,” the groups said.

"The longer bridge option would be less exposed, more reliable and safer for people," according to a joint news release from Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife Refuge Association and Southern Environmental Law Center.

"The state’s present scheme to replace Bonner Bridge at its current location and ignore the repeated, inevitable breaching south of the bridge is irresponsible," said Derb Carter, director of the Carolinas office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

"The state should put reliability and people’s safety first, build the safer, less-exposed ‘long bridge’ that bypasses the most rapidly eroding section of the island and let the ocean take its inevitable course in the wildlife refuge," he added.


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