March 20, 2013

Governor declares state of emergency for highway at S-curves


With an emergency declaration from the governor greasing the notoriously creaky regulatory process, North Carolina Department of Transportation officials are confident that a beach widening project near Rodanthe can be started before summer.

“Yes, ma’am, it is conceivable,” said Victor Barbour, DOT technical services administrator, “and we are pushing just as hard as we can to make that a reality.”

Barbour said the declaration will speed up the permitting and procuring process for NCDOT and other agencies involved in the project.

During an unannounced visit to the Outer Banks last week, Gov. Pat McCrory drove down to the north end of Rodanthe with North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata to look at the vulnerable condition of Highway 12 at the S-curves and adjacent Mirlo Beach, both of which have been plagued in recent weeks with repeated ocean overwash from coastal storms. 

Yesterday, McCrory issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency on Highway 12 between the northern end of New Inlet bridge on Pea Island to south of Corbina Road in Rodanthe.

“Secretary Tata made a recommendation to the governor, but he was down in Rodanthe and saw it for himself,” said DOT spokeswoman Dara Demi.  “They got out and walked around. They really got a good first-hand look when they were out there.”

Both men, she said, also heard the concerns about the road from island residents and local officials while attending a DOT hearing that night in Manteo. 

An agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do a beach nourishment project stretching north and south of Mirlo Beach had been signed in January, Barbour said, adding that the final plan detailing the project is expected any day.

Barbour said he does not yet know exactly how wide the beach will need to be to buffer the road from the impact of storm-driven waves, but he said his best estimate is about 200 to 250 feet.  The beach would be nourished from just north of the S-curves down toward the Rodanthe Pier with the center at Mirlo. 

He did not know how long it would take to complete the project.

The Corps has been asked by NCDOT to provide a project that will last three years, until the long-term solution is constructed at Rodanthe. Two alternatives, a bridge within the existing right of way and a high, angled bridge, are being considered. The preferred alternative will be announced in May.

An offshore sand source for the temporary nourishment has been identified at Wimble Shoals, Barbour said, and samples will be analyzed shortly.

Engineers also studied the possibility of using sand from Oregon Inlet, he said, but it was deemed too costly to transport.

Emergency funds for the $15 million to $20 million project have been provided by the Federal Highway Administration.

Dennis Stewart, biologist for Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, said that refuge officials are not opposed to the beach nourishment at the S-curves, which is located on the south end of the refuge, but they need information about the sand quality.

The concern, he said, would be about the grain size, mineral content, and whether it is contaminated.

 “We don’t want silt or clay or toxic materials,” he said. “That’s not good for anyone –animals or people.”

The governor’s emergency declaration will allow the refuge to suspend for 30 days certain regulations in the planning process, Stewart said, including the compatibility determination.

“What it means is, it gives us a 30-day window to work in preparing a bonafide special-use permit,” he said. “That’s all conditional on the Corps of Engineers getting us the proper information.”

As far as the refuge is concerned, Stewart said, the Corps can proceed immediately with the project, as long as they have the sand details ready at month’s end.  For that to happen, he said, a sand sample should be analyzed as soon as possible.

Stewart said that the preliminary details about the project provided at a merger team meeting in Raleigh in February said that about 1 million cubic yards of sand would be needed. He said it would most likely be loaded onto a hopper dredge, moved closer to shore and then pumped through a pipeline onto the beach.

The good supply of sand at Wimble Shoals is about 3 to 4 miles offshore, he said. 

Based on past experiences with Corps nourishment projects, Stewart said it would typically take 50 to 150 days from now for the Corps to have a contractor ready to go.

Information on the project was not yet available from the Corps on Wednesday, according to Corps spokesman Hank Heusinkveld.

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