Construction of New Bonner Bridge in N.C. to Begin Soon

 Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)  
June 16 -- HATTERAS ISLAND, N.C. -- With the oft-repaired Bonner Bridge in the background, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory stood under a baking Outer Banks sun Monday to announce construction of the long-awaited replacement span over Oregon Inlet.
The news brought cheers from about 50 officials and onlookers. Construction is expected to begin in March or April and take three years to finish.
"This is a magnificent accomplishment," McCrory said. "Keeping this bridge standing has been no easy task."
The announcement comes after environmental groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center agreed to settle a 4-year-old lawsuit against the state that held up construction of the 2.7-mile bridge connecting the northern Outer Banks with Hatteras Island . The new bridge would stretch parallel to the existing one.
The crossing at Oregon Inlet is vital to tens of thousands of vacationers headed to coastal points south of Nags Head during summer weeks. But the current bridge has outlived its projected life span by more than 20 years and has become increasingly difficult to maintain. The bridge was closed for about two weeks in December 2013 so crews could make repairs aimed at preventing the erosion of its pilings, and contractors just this month completed a project to repair multiple sections of its roadway. That construction caused weekday lane closures for about five months.
Those involved in the agreement with the North Carolina Department of Transportation said it paves the way for a long-term plan that not only will keep the travel lanes open, but protect a stretch of seashore that's a key haven for endangered shorebirds and other wildlife. As part of the deal, the state agreed to shelve plans for other bridges on N.C. 12 at spots on the island that are vulnerable to ocean washouts. That includes a 2.4-mile bridge on which work already had begun over a new inlet in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge .
Instead, the state will look at building additional bridges south of the new Bonner Bridge that would loop west into the Pamlico Sound and away from land areas most vulnerable to erosion. State officials said a section just north of Rodanthe is the most likely to see a new bridge that would curve out over the sound.
State officials said they will take temporary steps to keep the road passable through Pea Island while the long-term plans are worked out.
"This has been a very challenging process to all involved," said Derb Carter , director of the Southern Environmental Law Center .
The new parallel Bonner Bridge will follow the same construction blueprints, but the $216 million price tag will rise from the original 2011 contract, said state Transportation Secretary Tony Tata . The state does not have a new estimate, he said.
The Bonner Bridge announcement was good news to Hatteras Island , said Lee Nettles , director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau . Tourists spent $204 million on Hatteras Island in 2011, about a quarter of the total for Dare County , a study from the University of North Carolina said. The span carries more than 10,000 vehicles a day on a summer weekend.
"This is bound to have a positive impact," Nettles said.
The uncertainty of the bridge and N.C. 12 has hampered tourism travel there, he said. Storm surges often tear up the pavement on N.C. 12 , closing travel off and on Hatteras Island .
Banks have been reluctant to make loans for business investments and property purchases, said Allen Burrus , a Dare County commissioner and owner of a supermarket in Hatteras Village .
"It will certainly calm some concerns," he said.
Plans to replace the 52-year-old bridge began more than 25 years ago. The project went through multiple studies, including a 2010 environmental impact statement that ran more than 3,000 pages. That study was evaluated by 18 federal agencies, 11 state agencies and 14 local governments or agencies, according to court records. The state agreed to a construction contract in 2011.
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit on behalf of environmental groups. The groups had argued for a single bridge that would loop 17 miles from the north side of Oregon Inlet and over the Pamlico Sound to Rodanthe . Negotiations for a settlement began after a court decision last year had both sides claiming a partial victory, but did not resolve the conflict.
Jeff Hampton , 252-338-0159, jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com 

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