February 14, 2013

New transportation secretary talks about
local highway, bridge, and ferry issues


The state’s new transportation secretary backs the Bonner Bridge project, but he is not so sure about the Mid-Currituck Bridge. He also doesn’t favor a ferry solution for Oregon Inlet, but he’s willing to consider it in Currituck.

Some might take it as a good sign that Anthony J. “Tony” Tata, appointed last month to head the state Department of Transportation, calls the spot at the north end of Rodanthe “S-turns,” the name surfers use for the popular surf spot, instead of “S-curves,” the official name transportation officials call their current most troublesome hotspot on Highway 12.

In a telephone interview this week, Tata, 53, who grew up in Virginia Beach, said he has visited the Outer Banks many times over the years with friends who have relatives here and to surf.

Hatteras’ own Bert Austin, former sheriff of Dare County who now lives in Grandy, is one of his close friends, Tata said, and Austin’s nephew is his best friend.

“I’ve had a special relationship with the Outer Banks since my childhood, so I understand that the roads and ferries and shipping are the lifeline for the good folks on the Outer Banks,” he said.  “There’s a lot of key issues out there that we have to take on.”

Tata, a retired Army brigadier general who served from 2006-2007 as Deputy Commanding General of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was fired in September after 20 months as Superintendent of Schools in Wake County. Supporters say that Tata, hired by Republicans, was a victim of politics on the newly Democratic-controlled board.

Newly elected Gov. Pat McCrory’s office said in a statement that Tata’s 28 years of experience in the military, where he addressed complex transportation challenges involving ports, highways, airfields and rail, makes him well-suited to the job as transportation secretary.

Close observers of the NCDOT, an agency continually under pressure from the public and legislators, might say that Tata’s ability to work in a war zone gives him the temperament to lead DOT.

Despite being the subject of intense media scrutiny for the last two years, Tata spoke in a relaxed and amiable manner. But he didn’t pretend he knew all the answers.

“As a new secretary, you might imagine, we’re trying to take a new look at several different projects,” he said.

When asked about talk in the legislature of tolling the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry --- the busiest ferry route in the state ---he initially responded that “our feeling is that we should toll it all, or none.”

“I don’t see any reason for the citizens of the Outer Banks to pay for everything and not the tourist,” he said.

The toll increases at the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter routes to Ocracoke are already law, he said, that will go into effect June 30.

But Tata softened his stance in response to local objections that contend it would be unfair to toll the ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke, since, as the only access to the island, it is akin to a road.

“I think that’s a valid argument,” he said, “and if there is no other alternative access, it’s technically not a road, but it is a point of entry.” 

Tata dismissed the idea of using high speed ferries to transport people and vehicles from Oregon Inlet to Rodanthe, rather than replacing the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, and maintaining access on Highway 12, as some environmental groups have suggested.

“Ferries,” he said, “are not without disruption to the environment, also.”

But he said later in the interview that ferries of some kind are being considered as an option in the department’s re-evaluation of the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge project.

Tata said that DOT intends to move forward with the Bonner Bridge construction project that has recently started, as well as continuing with plans to rebuild and maintain Highway 12.

The DOT plan to replace the bridge is currently being challenged in federal court by environmental groups.

Any notion of building a 17.5-mile long bridge that would bypass hotspots in Pea Island, he said, is not realistic.

“We just can’t afford a billion dollar bridge,” he said.

“We feel it’s feasible to build two bridges for $200-$250 million,” he said, referring to spans over Oregon Inlet and over the new inlet on Pea Island.

Construction of the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge from the mainland to Corolla is still being evaluated by DOT, Tata said, including the possibility of using ferries.

A legislative transportation committee has questioned whether the state can afford to build the bridge. DOT engineers have also said that the project is a low priority compared with other state transportation needs.

“We’re having conversations about that right now,” he said. Part of the discussion includes a back-up plan to address traffic congestion if the bridge project is jettisoned.

Tata said that he intends to “leverage projects to create jobs” and to find ways to increase efficiency of maintenance of the state’s roads and bridges. Projects scheduled in the TIP, the state’s transportation plan, are also being evaluated.

“I’m looking at all of it,” he said, but declined to elaborate. “We’ve got a budget submission in a couple of weeks.” 

As far as the construction of the U.S. 64 widening project from Columbia to East Lake, Tata said he understood that the four-lane road was critical to alleviate the traffic bottleneck during hurricane evacuations.

But when told that residents say they’ve never experienced a traffic back-up during evacuations -- mainly because it’s not the route tourists favor -- and that the road would destroy their homes, Tata said that there has to be a balance between safety and heritage.

“That’s something that we’d take a look at,” he said. “The highway widening is scheduled right now for 2018, so we have time.”

Tata said he’d like to sit down with East Lake folks and talk to them, adding that he plans to visit every transportation division in the state to hold town hall-style meetings.

The date when he’ll be coming to Dare County has yet to be determined.

“There’s 14 divisions and one of me,” he said. “I might wait till the weather improves and the surf is up.”

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