December 3, 2013

Confusion, chaos, and outrage reign as DOT
suddenly decides to close Bonner Bridge


Confusion, chaos, and outrage reigned after the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s sudden decision today to close the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet immediately.

The decision came just days after an inspection of scouring around pilings last Friday, followed by a DOT news release on Saturday that the bridge was safe and would remain open.

Hatteras residents headed north this morning for shopping or appointments and vendors and contractors headed south, unaware that their return route was about to be cut off.

Hatteras Island residents waiting at the north end of the bridge this afternoon in hopes of returning said they weren’t expecting this.

Dozens of vehicles, filled with islanders caught by surprise by the 3 p.m. bridge closure, lined up north of Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, hoping that state transportation officials would allow them through.

“Are you going to let me take my mother home? “ Annette O’Neal from Salvo asked the NCDOT worker stationed at the end of the bridge, who declined to give his name.  “She has heart problems. She has fluid on her lungs. She’s 95-years old. I need to get her home.”

O’Neal said that she received “no warning…nothing,” about the closure.

“This is the stupidest mess I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Several people pleaded with the DOT worker, who for a time was the only person the frustrated drivers could appeal to.  Several mentioned the line of northbound vehicles that were allowed to cross after the southbound traffic was stopped.

“After I got here at about 3:30 p.m., I saw about a dozen out of state plates drive across and I’ve been waiting here ever since then,” said Wendy Angelucci of Frisco. “I don’t understand why they let the out-of-staters cross and not let the locals back.”

Traffic southbound of the bridge was stopped about 3 p.m., while northbound traffic continued to cross until about 45 minutes later.

Pat Weston of Avon was on her way back home with her husband, Jim, after his heart surgery in Norfolk.

“We’re just trying to get back home,” she said, with Jim sitting on the passenger side.

“As soon as he got discharged, we were heading back home.”

Numerous people said that they had heard at some point today – most cited from a friend, a family member or the radio- that the bridge was closing at 4 p.m. A NCDOT worker who declined to give his name said that the bridge was closed an hour earlier than expected because of safety concerns.

 Pat McClain, whose vehicle had New Jersey plates, said he was on his way to work for Great Lakes, the dredge company working in Oregon Inlet. McClain said that he was told to get to work by 3:30 p.m. because the bridge would close at 4 p.m. But after waiting for more than an hour, he gave up and turned his truck around.

Others said they were willing to take the chance of plunging into the inlet, even promising to sign a waiver.

“We’ll hold hands,” said Jackie Burrus Poteate, a Hatteras native.

Poteate said she was worried about her husband waiting back home because he was alone and had a heart condition. The driver, her daughter, Terri Poteet agreed.

“We’re just trying to get home,” she said. “We’ll take the risk.”

Carol Williams Anderson of Buxton said she thinks the whole situation didn’t make any sense.

“I think it’s a conspiracy of the local and state governments to close our island down,” she said.  “I think it’s a political game to put pressure on to get the bridge built.”

An interview with Gov. Pat McCrory late this afternoon by reporter Sam Walker broadcast by Max Radio reinforced Anderson’s view.

“We’re being blocked by lawsuits,” the governor said. “The new bridge should have already been under construction.”

Two environmental groups, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, have sued the state over the permitting of the bridge, and the project has been stayed by the courts for months.

“We’re being stopped by some pretty left-wing environmental groups that I don’t think have the best interest of the public in mind.”

McCrory said that people should “put public political pressure on these groups.” 

Initially, people were told they could walk across the two-mile bridge, but after a worker let someone cross on foot, officials said that there would be no access whatsoever permitted on the bridge. One man did anyway, daring the DOT worker to arrest him. He was not stopped, and police arrived soon to again enforce the closure.

For more than an hour after the bridge closed, most everybody in line waited in place, hoping they would eventually be allowed to cross. Although there was a sign at Whalebone Junction warning of the bridge being closed, a few additional vehicles continued to drive on and took their place at the back of the line.

Jeff Pope, a Buxton property owner who lives in Rocky Mount, said he drove to the Outer Banks after reading online about the bridge situation and was reassured by DOT reports that the bridge was safe.

“I’ve been following the bridge news,” he said. “It was like, ‘C’mon – everything’s fine.’ However . . . ,” he said. “I left at about 2 o’clock, and here I am.”

Some drivers wondered aloud what would happen if they drove around the barricade and went over the bridge. One person said if they all did it together, no one could stop them. But by 5 p.m., everyone had given up and turned around.

The scene all afternoon at the south end of the bridge on Pea Island was much the same – though there was less traffic lined up.  At one point, there were about a dozen vehicles and delivery trucks with drivers who hoped that someone would let them cross before the bridge was finally closed.

“It would have been nice to have gotten some notice,” said Brian Hardison of Kill Devil Hills.  He works at Good Winds Café in Salvo, which is already closed.  However, he was back down today to do end-of-the-season cleaning.

Dan Jones of Manteo, who was trying to get home after his first day of work on the island, said he’d heard that “this kind of thing can happen on Hatteras,” but he agreed that some notice would have been nice.

At one point, Dare County sheriff’s deputies were discussing with DOT when the last vehicles could cross over before the closure.

When the word came shortly after 4 p.m. that there would be no more traffic allowed to cross the bridge, drivers started their engines in unison to turn around and race back to Rodanthe to catch a 6 p.m. emergency ferry to Stumpy Point.

By 4:30 p.m. there were already two stacking lanes of traffic at the Rodanthe ferry docks that spilled out onto Highway 12 and backed up almost to Island Convenience. In the line were delivery trucks, vehicles, and road pavers.

The ferry to Stumpy Point loaded up and left before 6 p.m., leaving another boatload to get the next scheduled ferry at midnight.

Two ferries were scheduled from Stumpy Point to Rodanthe at 9:30 p.m. and 3:30 a.m.

Tomorrow morning the emergency ferry will begin a regular schedule.

The announced schedule for the emergency ferry route is:
Departing from Stumpy Point: 5 a.m., 6:30, 8, 9:30, 11, 12:30p.m., 2, 3:30, 5, and 9:30 p.m.

Departing from Rodanthe: 6a.m., 7:30, 9, 10:30, Noon, 1:30 p.m., 3, 4:30, 6, and 7:30.

Any updates or changes will be posted on the Ferry division website.


DOT has closed Bonner Bridge because of safety concerns

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