March 12, 2012
USFWS says bridge replacement is compatible – with conditions


If the state Department of Transportation wants to build a replacement for the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, then it’s going to have to give up its land at the old lifesaving station on the northern end of Hatteras, figure out how to prevent bird strikes on the span, and design a model that can predict storm impacts.

Those are essentially the conditions set by Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge manager Mike Bryant to find the project compatible within the refuge, a critical determination required for the Bonner project to move forward.

“I’d be asking for 12.23 acres at the Old Coast Guard Station and the road,” Bryant said last week. “If I can manage that for wildlife, it’s adequate compensation for the land they’re going to need for the new bridge.”

As the March 14 deadline to submit comments approaches, the DOT is still mulling over its response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s draft determination, released last month in response to the agency’s request for a Highway 12 right-of-way permit.

“We’re getting that prepared and we’ll get it done within the next week,” said Victor Barbour, NCDOT technical services administrator.

Although he declined to specify where there may be disagreement about the specifications, Barbour said the transportation department is doing a study on the bird fatalities on the bridge, including whether the dead birds are protected migratory birds or common seagulls.

The study will take about a year to complete, he said, and will help determine what sort of engineering could help alleviate bird strikes.  Barbour said he is not aware of any bridge in the state that has incorporated such a design.

But Bryant said that there are a variety of methods that have been used elsewhere in the country that can help a bird avoid hitting the guardrails, like poles positioned at a certain height.  But it’s up to DOT to choose the appropriate design. Not only will it be good for birds, he said, it would also keep the motoring public from having “a pelican go through your windshield.”  

Part of what might explain the strikes, he said, is that birds are drawn in by wind eddies created by traffic, and they don’t have enough time to correct their course.  

“The bottom line is there’s dead birds on the bridge, and it happens all the time,” Bryant said. “We would like to mitigate for that loss, at least in the refuge.”  

In exchange for the 10 acres or so of refuge land lost in the bridge project, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants the 10 acres under the historic Coast Guard Station, currently managed by the North Carolina Aquariums -- as well as unmaintained road south of the station -- to be turned over to the refuge. Bryant said that amounts to only half of the compensatory mitigation that the refuge’s compatibility policy would provide.

It would be up to the state whether or not to keep the station in place on the southeast corner of Oregon Inlet, Bryant said, or relocate it to a different site. If it remains, the refuge would permit DOT to build a boardwalk and observation deck from the existing parking lot at the foot of the bridge.

Built in 1897, the station, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is visible, peeking over sand dunes, to drivers traveling south over the bridge. After the Coast Guard vacated the 10-acre site in 1988, it was turned over to Dare County.  Heirs of the man who had originally given the land to the Coast Guard sued Dare County, but lost. In 2000, the county gave the land to the state, which in turn assigned it to the state Aquariums to administer.

For years, the station sat abandoned, plagued by vandals and nearly buried by wind-blown sand. Then in 2008, modern dormitory buildings were demolished and the historic station was weatherized, keeping the structure safe while the state figured out what would happen with the controversial Bonner Bridge project.

Construction on the new bridge parallel to the existing span is expected to begin late this year. The new bridge is targeted to open for traffic in 2015.

At one time, a conceptual plan for restoration of the 11,361-square-foot wood frame Oregon Inlet station building and expansion of the site into a marine and coastal research center was under consideration. But the plan was shelved after the state decided to rebuild Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head.  

David Griffin, state Aquariums director, said that Bryant’s proposal is still being evaluated and negotiated, including the impacted area that the refuge is claiming needs to be mitigated.

The amount the refuge wants mitigated, he said, “exceeds” the established ratios and equivalents for impacts.

Griffin said that whether or not the structure may have to be moved will be determined by what amount of land, if any, the state agrees to sign over to the refuge. He also said that no specific alternate site has been discussed, nor has any specific use for the station been under discussion.

“That’s all up in the air,” he said, “depending on the resolution of all these issues.”

Other conditions in the draft compatibility determination include treatment to prevent spread of invasive plants, which Bryant said is a routine request, and the creation of a computer model that would be able predict storm impacts ahead of time, based on statistical data.

“Right now, we’re all reactive,” he said.

Bryant said that he believes that the refuge has proposed reasonable stipulations while accommodating the state’s request.

“In all fairness, we heard each other out as much as we needed,” he said. “I’ve listened long and hard -- for 11 years now. I’ve made my determination based on the best available science and my best professional judgment.”


 For more information, and to view a link to the draft compatibility determination, see:

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