November 24, 2014


Rumors of Bonner Bridge closure shot
down, as negotiations continue

By IRENE NOLAN



The North Carolina Department of Transportation says it has no plans to shut down the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet after Thanksgiving, despite a rumor last week that a post-holiday closure was imminent.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., has just granted its third 30-day extension of the time for parties in the ongoing legal battle over replacing the aging bridge to ask for a rehearing by the three-judge panel that issued an opinion on Aug. 6 or by the entire Appeals Court.

The deadline is now Friday, Dec. 19.

THIRD EXTENSION OF TIME FOR REHEARING

Negotiations continue out of public view between the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration and the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of its clients, to settle a long legal battle over the state agency's plan to replace the aging bridge.

As promised, neither side in the debate about replacing the bridge has commented on the confidential maneuvering that's going on in Raleigh and Chapel Hill, nor has either given any hint of how long it might take to either reach an agreement or announce an impasse.

Each party had 45 days after the Aug. 6 ruling to ask for a rehearing, but instead they announced on Sept. 15 that they were in "conversations" to find a solution.

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

In the opinion, the Appeals Court panel disagreed with a large part of the case that environmental groups made against the bridge replacement plan -- that DOT did not follow the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and that it illegally segmented the project. The three judges upheld the decision of a lower court that DOT has followed all necessary environmental laws.

However, the panel did remand the part of the ruling that deals with building a road through federal lands back to a lower court for another look.

Shortly after that announcement of negotiations, all of the parties -- including defendant-intervenor, The Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative -- petitioned the court to extend the initial 45-day time period to ask for rehearing for another 30 days.

The reasons, they said, were two-fold.

First, the extension was necessary to "facilitate ongoing settlement discussions" and, if successful, no party would have to ask for a rehearing. An extension would "avoid entangling the court in rehearing petitions that might prove unnecessary."

The second reason was that the parties needed additional time to complete the process of deciding whether to file any rehearing petitions in the Appeals Court's "complex" decision.

That petition was granted, and the court extended the deadline from Sept. 22 to Oct. 22.

On Friday, Oct. 17, the court granted a second extension. This one moved the deadline from Oct. 22 to Nov. 21. However, the second petition was filed by DOT and FHWA only. The agencies cited the same two reasons for the extension.

Then the petition notes that the agencies asked the plaintiffs -- SELC and clients -- for their position on the second request.

According to the petition, SELC and clients stated that "Plaintiff-Appellants do not join and take no position on this motion, and believe that the ongoing settlement negotiations can continue to proceed without an additional extension of the deadline."

This third petition for an extension also was filed by only DOT and FHWA, and again the plaintiffs gave the same response for not joining in.

Again, the court granted the extension without comment. 

The confidential discussions that could end the case, DOT said in September, include "replacing the aging Herbert C. Bonner Bridge with a new parallel bridge while continuing to develop a long-term solution to the transportation challenges along the stretch of N.C. 12 south of the bridge to Rodanthe."

On the table for discussion is a 7-mile span that 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.

One of those hotspots is at Pea Island Inlet, where a permanent bridge had been under construction since February. DOT announced on Sept. 10 that it was suspending work on that project. There has been no further comment on if or when the project will continue.

RUMORS AND UPCOMING REPAIRS

The rumor about a post-Thanksgiving Bonner Bridge closure was circulating in some areas on Hatteras Island late last week and had some islanders anxious. 

Last year, the bridge was closed down for safety reasons shortly after Thanksgiving weekend while sand was pumped in around some scoured out pilings.

Jennifer Garifo, spokeswoman for the NCDOT, said in an e-mail that perhaps the rumor got its start because the agency is gearing up to do some repair work on the bridge after the first of the year.

"We are getting ready to award two maintenance project contracts for the bridge: one for concrete repair under the bridge deck and another for crutch bent repairs," Garifo said.

Neither project will start until after Jan. 1, she said, and neither one will require a closure of the bridge. There will be a lane closure for the concrete repair work, but the bridge will still be open for traffic in both directions.

According to DOT, concrete repairs will be made at approximately 249 areas along the bridge that had been identified as priority areas during the most recent regular two-year inspection of the bridge earlier this year.

The letting date is Nov. 19 with a contract expected to be awarded in early to mid-December. The work can begin as early as Jan. 5 and must be completed by June 6. This work is similar to work that began September 2013 at other areas along the underside of the bridge.
Repairs will be made to the steel crutch bents in place from bent 108 through 114. These steel crutch bents were installed in 1989.

As with the concrete repairs, the letting date is Nov. 19 with a contract expected to be awarded in early to mid-December. The work can begin as early as Jan. 5 and must be completed by June 12.

RELATED ARTICLES

Appeals Court affirms in part and reverses in part lower court ruling on Bonner Bridge...Aug. 6, 2014
Don't believe everything you read..."Shooting the Breeze" blog from Aug. 8, 2014
DOT temporarily suspends work on new Pea Island bridge...Sept. 10, 2014
UPDATE: DOT and SELC in 'discussions' about Bonner Bridge replacement...Sept. 15, 2014
UPDATE: New concept includes 7-mile bridge into Pamlico Sound...Sept. 16, 2014
7-mile bridge could be costly to CHEC customers...Oct. 1, 2014
Court of Appeals grants another 30-day extension for rehearing of bridge lawsuit...Oct. 21, 2014


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