September 10, 2011
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UPDATE: DOT responds to environmental groups’ lawsuit over bridge replacement

By CATHERINE KOZAK


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 lands.  


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 Administration.

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 Rodanthe.

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 refuge. 

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 is “irresponsible.”

“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.


FOR MORE INFORMATION

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:

2011Archives/07.01.2011-EnvironmentalGroupsSueToStopBonnerBridgeReplacementProject.html
2011Archives/07.27.2011-UPDATENCDOTAwards215.8MillionContractToReplaceBonnerBridge.html

 




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