Guest Column: The best path to a safe bridge and reliable highway
By BETH MIDGETT
issue of the Bonner Bridge replacement and access to Hatteras and
Ocracoke islands has become an ever-increasing source of stress to our
residents and visitors.
There is the fear of physical danger
involved in a bridge collapse and the anxiety about Highway 12 that
accompanies each weather system that has been frustrating us even more
since Hurricane Sandy and a series of northeasters.
are in limbo and long-term decision-making or planning has been
impossible. Normal decisions made by families, such as taking out
an equity loan to add on to a home for a growing family, purchasing a
new vehicle, or deciding on which college a child can attend, take on
Small business owners, the backbone of the
islands’ economies, face the same overwhelming sense of
uncertainty. The concern is that there will be no way to support
families and fulfill debts if our bridge and road fail before a new one
can be built.
The Citizen’s Action Committee to Replace the
Herbert C. Bonner Bridge formed as a grassroots organization in the
spring of 2006 to help bring a human face to what we felt had become a
stalled and detached scientific debate over the bridge
replacement. We created a website
www.replacethebridgenow.com to educate the public on how the
issue has an impact on them and to provide a tool through which the
public could contact their elected officials and demand action.
were in agreement that if we allowed the debate to drag on any further,
it would constitute a clear and present safety issue for all
concerned. We worked hard to communicate to the powers-that-be
that we expected a humane and equitable decision. We wanted a decision
that took into consideration not only the legitimate environmental
concerns involved but also the immediacy of the need, the true
availability of funding, and the safety of the traveling public.
Inertia was no longer acceptable.
As chairwoman of the
committee, I am proud of the fact that our group was able to kick start
the process and bring the focus back to the human lives that are
affected when a stalemate such as this occurs -- when government
inaction becomes the only action.
After public hearings in
August of 2010, the North Carolina Department of Transportation
announced it had received a record-breaking number of comments --more
than 4,000 -- from local residents, business owners, and tourists who
showed overwhelming support for the Parallel Bridge Corridor/Phased
Of note is the fact that more than 3,500
comment forms were hand-signed submissions with only 500 that were
submitted electronically. Only nine comments were received
opposing the project.
That same month, another grassroots
group formed, the Bridge Moms. The goal of this group was to help
get the message out that the mothers of our islands were desperate to
have the safety issue of the replacement of the bridge resolved so that
our loved ones’ lives could be protected. Women from all across
America wrote powerful and compelling letters about the future safety
and welfare of the families that must use the bridge. Hundreds of
their letters were delivered by North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue’s office
to First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House in Washington, D.C.
20 years of studies that involved at least 12 different federal and
state agencies that analyzed 33 different design options, the DOT
reached a record of decision in December of 2010 – to build the short
replacement for the Bonner Bridge and take a phased approach to Highway
12 between the bridge and Rodanthe, as conditions warranted.
in July of 2011, the Defenders of Wildlife the National Wildlife Refuge
Association, with local friends’ affiliate the Coastal Wildlife Refuge
Society, filed the long-threatened lawsuit. Represented by the Southern
Environmental Law Center, the groups said that DOT and the Federal
Highway Association had not complied with the National Environmental
Policy Act when they chose the “short bridge” option.
The groups supported a 17.5-mile bridge out over the Pamlico Sound from Bodie Island to Rodanthe.
if the replacement short bridge and phases had been allowed to be built
rather than stalled, we would not be riding ferries as a result of
The groups that brought the lawsuit do not rely
on this bridge to have access to their homes nor do they need it to
make a living or have meet their daily needs -- food, gas, medicines,
access to hospitals and doctors – met by the vendors and suppliers who
travel over it or even the electricity and data/phone lines that run
The bridge and the corridor are literally, for us, a lifeline. If it fails, we fail.
lawsuit is currently in the hands of Judge Louise Flanagan in the U.S.
District Court in New Bern, The judge could be making a decision on the
plaintiffs’ or defenders’ request for summary judgment soon or
scheduling in a hearing in the next few months.
It is my belief that the proposed project is our best reasonable available long-term solution.
with the endless delays and the lack of progress on the corridor has
some folks rightfully questioning, once again, the long bridge option
or even the option of a high-speed ferry system.
With all due
respect, going back yet again to research a ferry system and/or a long
bridge would set the clock back for many, many years.
be followed and any project would have to go through the NEPA
process. The last numbers I saw for the average time for the process in
the southeastern U.S. for federal highway projects was close to six
years for the required studies. Keep in mind we are not an average
area. Studies on transportation projects here
are very complex with a myriad of governmental agencies,
state and local, all with differing mission statements, having to reach
a consensus. Hence, the 20-plus years of study on the current Bonner
Bridge/phased approach project.
I firmly believe that even if
the 17-mile bridge was chosen, it too would be ultimately blocked
by SELC and their plaintiff recruits, given the fact they are
on public record opposing a 7-mile bridge (the Mid-Currituck toll
bridge) just north of us in the same watershed for the following
- Damage to water quality and aquatic habitat in the Currituck estuary
beachfront development in an area vulnerable to erosion, hurricanes,
and rising sea levels and other threats likely to become more severe as
a result of global climate change
- Thousands more vehicles on the beaches of the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge
can the SELC claim to be in support of a long-bridge option for
Hatteras Island when the group has legally gone on record against a
much shorter bridge in an almost identical coastal environment?
hurdle -- and in my opinion, the largest -- is money. The
$216 million needed for the Bonner Bridge replacement is currently in
the budget and the contract has been awarded.
The Phase II
portion of the Bonner Bridge project is the Pea Island Inlet’s 2-mile
bridge, which is budgeted at $90 million, and it is my understanding
that a good portion of that is funded because it is still under the
emergency funds allocated from the Hurricane Irene disaster.
of the phased approach, a 2-2.5 mile Mirlo Beach/S-curves bridge, is
estimated on high side at $160 million. As I understand it, the
remaining portion of the Phase II bridge and the Phase III funding
still needs to be secured. NCDOT would have to “find” the additional
$200 to $250 million to build Bonner bridge and complete the next two
The lowest estimate on the long bridge is
$1.2 billion and, like building out the Bonner parallel replacement
span and two phases all at once, all of that money would have to be
paid at the time it was being built. The rough cost difference between
the Bonner Bridge/phased approach and the long bridge means NCDOT would
have to “find” $744 million.
SELC and some others think the best
way to travel to and from the islands is by ferry. The newest ferry of
our North Carolina fleet, the Sea Level, cost $16 million. It is my
understanding that the cost of a twin hulled/high-speed passenger ferry
is estimated at about three times that of a traditional ferry per
vessel. Operating cost is estimated to be about twice the amount of a
If the Bonner Bridge carries approximately
two million vehicles per year (2005 estimate,) it probably would not be
a stretch to say we need at least 18 ferries, which is $864 million
dollars in vessels only. That would be a cost before needed
infrastructure, such as channel dredging, ramps, parking, fuel storage
and the operating budget for staff.
Realistically, in this day
and time of the “fiscal cliff,” ongoing budget shortfalls and most
surely the federal relief funds needed for Sandy infrastructure repair
in high population areas north of us, I do not see that we could ever
secure the amount of funding needed. One needs only to look at
online comments that follow each and every story about our predicament
that attest to the fact that many of our fellow North Carolina citizens
want to see no money whatsoever spent for our access.
We need to
be forward thinking and work together to make sure we get both
temporary and long-term solutions implemented so that we do not have to
sweat it out with every passing storm.
Bridge/Phased Approach has cleared all of the hurdles, except save the
lawsuit and we need only an addition $200 to $250 million for the
Highway 12 bridges.
I have confirmed with NCDOT that if the
Bonner Bridge/Phased Approach had been in place, we would be driving on
Hatteras Island in the aftermath of Sandy. The plan allows for adaptive
management of the corridor and takes into consideration the reality
that a “one-size-fits-all” solution is not an answer for our dynamic
In short, the Bonner Bridge/Phased Approach plan is
the most timely, most available, and most easily funded project we have
within our reach. We need to move forward NOW. Construction will
take three to four years, and now, because of the endless delays of the
past 20 years, we will more than likely need a temporary bridge at the
S-Curves area at Mirlo Beach and a ramped up emergency ferry system to
get us through in the meantime.
If further protection is
ultimately secured, such as beach nourishment, that would be an added
plus. But we need immediate relief now.
So what can you do
today? Call -- or even better write -- our governor, our new
governor-elect, and Secretary of the Department of Transportation Gene
Conti and let them know that you fully support the immediate and
concurrent building of all phases of the Bonner Bridge replacement
Please let them know that you want them to use
all available resources to move the project forward as expeditiously as
law allows. In addition, since building all the phases will take
three to four years, ask that any emergency repairs currently in the
works for Highway 12 are geared towards solutions that guarantee safe
and reliable access until that time.
Midgett of Hatteras village is chairwoman of Dare County’s Citizens’
Committee to Replace the Bonner Bridge and a founder of the Bridge Moms