environmental groups’ lawsuit over bridge replacement
In its 25-page answer to a lawsuit by two environmental groups trying
to stop the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge replacement project, attorneys for
the state Department of Transportation defended its choice of a short
bridge and later road maintenance as the only practical alternative
that will be constructed with minimal damage to wild
The Sept. 6 response, filed on the last day it was due, asks the
federal court to dismiss the allegations made by the Southern
Environmental Law Center, which represents plaintiffs Defenders of
Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, and award
attorneys’ fees to defendants NCDOT and the Federal Highway
Much of the complaint filed on July 1 centers on DOT’s decision to not
pursue a 17.5-mile alternative to replace the 48-year-old bridge that
would have bypassed Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and NC 12 to
While admitting that the law requires that all alternatives in a
project must be objectively explored and evaluated, the state cited
parts of the law that allows the state Secretary of Transportation to
approve a project on a public wildlife refuge if there is “no prudent
or feasible alternative,” and if the plan minimizes “harm” to the
According to refuge data cited in the document, about 2.7 million
people annually travel on Highway 12 through the refuge, which ranges
from a quarter-mile to one mile in width.
Created in 1938, the refuge ---which has man-made shallow ponds called
impoundments --- provides habitat for about 365 bird, 24 reptile, 25
mammal and five amphibian species.
A “permanent easement” conveyed to the state through Pea Island was
authorized in 1951, and the Bonner Bridge opened to traffic in 1963.
Attorneys for the state did not deny that refuge officials, as well as
stakeholders from other federal agencies, had once stated a preference
for the long bridge, known as the “Pamlico Sound Bridge Corridor,” or
that its costs had increased by the 2009 evaluation to as much as $1.4
billion. But members of the planning team ultimately concurred that the
long bridge was impractical largely because of the high cost.
A subsequent preferred alternative that had phased approaches to
construction of the bridge and maintenance was eventually updated to
what became the final alternative approved in December, which provides
that the bridge is built first and Highway 12 is repaired as needed.
On July 26, DOT awarded a $215.8 million contract -- $25.8 million less
than originally estimated -- to design-build team of PCL Civil
Constructors Inc. and HDR Engineering Inc. of the Carolinas, according
to the agency’s website. Construction is expected to begin by late
2012, with the bridge opening targeted for early 2015. The old bridge
would be demolished the following year, except for a small portion that
will be maintained as a fishing pier.
But recent damage during Hurricane Irene has forced DOT to push road
repair options to the fore. Faced with two severe breaches of the
highway on the south end of the refuge and Mirlo Beach, DOT is planning
to use temporary bridges after filling in the cuts.
In an Aug. 29 press release, Derb Carter, director of the Carolina
office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, asserted that the
state’s refusal to build the long bridge in favor of the approved plan
“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,” he said in the statement, “and let the
ocean take its inevitable course in the wildlife refuge.”
The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to stop the project until the
NEPA regulations are complied with. The judge could dismiss the
complaint, schedule a hearing, issue an order from the bench, or a
combination of actions.
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Chief Judge Louise Wood
Flanigan in New Bern.
To keep the public updated on the project, the department has posted
the legal documents on the Bonner Bridge webpage, www.ncdot.org/projects/bonnerbridgerepairs/.
For previous Island Free Press articles on the lawsuit, go to: