October 1, 2014

7-mile bridge could be costly to CHEC customers


A 7-mile bridge that is on the table as the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Southern Environmental Law Center  negotiate an agreement to end legal action over the replacement of the Bonner Bridge would be costly to Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative members on Hatteras Island.

The 7-mile span that is under discussion would run out into the Pamlico Sound from just north of Pea Island Inlet to northern Rodanthe and would eliminate the need for DOT to bridge two hotspots where the ocean threatens Highway 12 on the southern end of the refuge.

SELC, on behalf Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, filed a lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration and DOT in 2011 to stop the agencies from replacing the Bonner Bridge with a new parallel bridge and addressing threatened areas on Highway 12 as needed.  The environmental groups prefer a longer 17.5 mile bridge from Bodie Island to Rodanthe that would bypass the refuge.

The Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative, which supplies power to all of Hatteras Island, was allowed as defendant-intervenor in the lawsuit, because a longer bridge would substantially increase electric rates.

The cooperative is not directly involved in negotiations with SELC but has had discussions with DOT about how such a bridge would affect its members, according to  general manager Susan Flythe.

Flythe said today that CHEC's engineering consulting firm has determined that it is possible to run power cables on the bridge and to maintain reliable service on the island.

"However," she said, "it will be very, very, very expensive."

She said that the very preliminary estimate of the cost is about $30 million. 

Power now reaches the island through cables on the aging bridge over Oregon Inlet, which is 2.7 miles long, and the cost for moving the cables to a new parallel bridge is about $10 million.

The total new cost to CHEC to run power over the Bonner Bridge replacement and the 7-mile bridge would be about $40 million in new construction.

By contrast, Flythe said, the value of the cooperative's net utility plant -- its infrastructure that includes such things as the buildings, substations, and power poles -- is just $40 million.

CHEC possibly could maintain its power lines through Pea Island refuge, since it will continue to own the right-of-way. However, this option will depend on whether there will continue to be road access to the area.

Flythe said CHEC has shared its concern about cost and access with DOT.

DOT abruptly announced on Sept. 10 that it was stopping work on a permanent bridge over Pea Island Inlet, which has been under construction since February.

The department announced on Sept. 15 that it was in discussions with SELC.

"Following a complex ruling issued by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on Aug. 6," DOT said in a news release, "both sides determined that it was best to move forward with confidential discussions to resolve the bridge dispute."

DOT and SELC have said they will not comment further while the discussions are underway.

While there has been no indication of how long the discussions might last, the two sides in the dispute jointly asked the appeals court to extend the 45 days each has to petition for a re-hearing.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond did agree to extend the deadline  from Sept. 22 to Oct. 22.

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