July 1, 2011
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Environmental groups sue to stop Bonner Bridge Replacement Project

By IRENE NOLAN



The Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, today filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina to stop the Bonner Bridge replacement project.

The lawsuit challenges last year’s decision by state and U.S. transportation officials to build a replacement bridge parallel to the current bridge and deal with problems of erosion on Highway 12 as is needed.

Defendants are the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.

“We agree that Bonner Bridge must be replaced, and soon. But decision-makers are ignoring the main problem: how to maintain a safe, reliable route from the end of the new bridge through a wildlife refuge on an unstable barrier island,” said Julie Youngman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a media release.

“Like Alaska’s ‘bridge to nowhere,’ the current plan will create North Carolina’s ‘bridge you can’t get to’ as waves and storms erode the access road. It’s simply not a viable or legal solution,” Youngman added. “The selected alternative will undermine the ecological integrity of the fragile Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and threaten the sea turtles and birds for which it was created.”

The lawsuit says that federal and state transportation officials did not adequately assess or address the environmental consequences of building a 2.7 mile bridge parallel to the current one and postponing addressing the problems of erosion on Highway 12 through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The defendants, the lawsuit says, violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).


The replacement for the aging Bonner Bridge was studied for 20 years before the U.S. Federal Highway Administration and the North Carolina Department of Transportation reached an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to build the “short” bridge.

That Record of Decision was announced in December of last year.

The environmental groups are on record as in favor of a longer 17-mile bridge that would bypass the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on northern Hatteras Island and land near Rodanthe.

State and federal officials deemed that option as too costly.

The bridge, which was opened in 1963, was projected to have a useful lifespan of 30 years.  The projected 1993 replacement date has come and gone as agencies squabbled about how to replace it on the fragile barrier island.

Meanwhile, the bridge, while said to be safe by NCDOT officials, has continued to encounter problems and need repairs.

Dare County and many Hatteras islanders are concerned for the safety of the traveling public as they cross the bridge, the only land link to the northern Outer Banks and mainland North Carolina.

The lawsuit asks the court to:

  • Issue a declaratory judgment stating that the Defendants have violated NEPA, Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, and their implementing regulations in the respects set forth above;
  • Enter appropriate preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to ensure that Defendants comply with the provisions of NEPA, Section 4(f), and their implementing regulations as described above, and specifically to ensure that Defendants take no further actions towards proceeding with the Bonner Bridge Replacement Project until they have complied with those laws;
  • Order that the Record of Decision dated December 20, 2010 be vacated, set aside, and/or rescinded

The request for an injunction against moving forward, if granted, would stop all work on the bridge replacement.

Bids and proposal for the design-build project were due from contractors to DOT today, but were not scheduled to be opened until July 19.

The replacement is expected to cost about $300 million and would not be completed until at least 2015.

The people of Dare County and visitors who must cross the bridge have already waited too long for a new, safer bridge, said Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners.

In a phone call today, he called the environmental groups “bullies,” and said the lawsuit was “shameful, disruptive, and a delaying tactic.”

“They (the environmental groups) are once again demonstrating their total disregard for the people in the county, not just the people of Dare County, who must travel on the bridge,” he said.

“Our logical minds told us this would happen,” said Beth Midgett, chairwoman of the county’s Citizens’ Committee to Replace the Bonner Bridge and founder of the grassroots group Bridge Moms, which advocates for an immediate safer passage for their children and all others.

“This is not the subject of a professor’s white paper,” Midgett said.  “This is the story of our lives.

“We’re not standing down,” Midgett added. “The Bridge Moms are not standing idly by.”


FOR MORE INFORMATION

Click here to read the complaint filed today to stop the Bonner Bridge Replacement.



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