Ocracoke Update:  Life without a highway
February 29, 2008

Ocracoke’s highway will re-open March 5


The long winter’s wait is almost over.    

North Carolina Department of Transportation officials have announced that Highway 12 on Ocracoke will re-open on Wednesday, March 5, at 5 p.m., which is 10 days ahead of schedule.  
Highway 12 has been closed since Jan. 2 to replace seven bridges over the island’s creeks.  Traffic from the north has been routed onto a 3-mile detour on the beach.

From the beginning of the project, NCDOT officials and the contractor assured the community that the March 15 deadline allowed ample time for bad weather and other delays. With advanced staging done in November and December, the crews had a significant portion of the project  in place before the detour even began.
The project and beach detour have gotten a lot of publicity on local blogs, in newspapers, on TV stations, and the official DOT site, www.ocracokebridges.com. Even with a concentrated effort to let travelers know of the beach detour project with large variable signs and press releases, there were many travelers who didn’t learn about the detour until they arrived in Ocracoke.

Jarvis Williams, who was contracted to provide towing service along the 3.3 miles of the beach detour, also offered a trailer ride for two-wheel-drive vehicles that needed to get to the other end of the island.

In mid-January, Hyde County Emergency Manager Tony Spencer issued a situational report to let people know how Ocracoke was faring. He commented that on the detour‘s extensive use and the consistent out-of-town traffic that could be found on the island in January. On a personal note, it was always a surprise to see faces in Jason’s restaurant that I didn’t recognize. And when taking reservations at a local bed and breakfast, I was always surprised at the callers who were interested in coming down in the dead of winter.

At one of the first public meetings to talk about the beach detour, Hyde County Interim Manager Carl Classen told the group that “the logistics of a project of this magnitude are difficult at best.”

That proved to be true. The extensive planning for medical emergencies, delivery of goods and services, availability of gasoline, and public safety were all considered and carefully planned for more than a year before the detour began.

The plan was not always widely accepted throughout the community. Business owners and residents were upset that there was no other alternative and worried that potential visitors would be discouraged from coming to the island.

“As early as 2005 we implored DOT to utilize an ‘inside the dunes’ temporary bypass bridge detour system for NC 12 to maintain traffic flow,” said Fred Westervelt, resident and local business owner. “They and NPS declined. We now emerge from this because of the ‘above and beyond’ efforts of many people and agencies and with the weather of Divine providence. The cost and inconvenience to Ocracoke has not been tabulated, but I'll guess it was substantial. What could have been a really serious mess was averted. We were lucky, very lucky!”

For the lodging industry, the businesses that stayed open had complaints centered on not having places to eat and shop for people who did visit in the winter.  However, that’s a problem every year, not unique to this winter. In the past, restaurant owners collaborated about their schedules, so that everyone wasn’t open at the same time. They know that there’s not enough business during the winter months if it is shared.

And so, the Ocracoke community moves on into the spring and starts to worry about bigger issues. Will tourists and residents be able to continue driving on the beach this summer?  Will high gas prices halt vacations? Will being the No. 1 beach for 2007 ultimately help us or hurt us? Will they start serving coffee on the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter ferries? Will developers have their way and ruin some of the most respected and pristine spots on the island? Will Ocracoke gets its long awaited parking at the lighthouse or on the edge of the village? What about public bathrooms throughout the village? And how about trash cans?

So long to the winter break.

(Jamie Tunnell is the editor of The Ocracoke Observer and a freelance writer for The Island Free Press.)

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