December 4, 2014

Mid-Currituck bridge back on table in the
state's 10-year transportation plan


The on-again off-again Mid-Currituck Bridge proposal is back on the table, with its inclusion in the draft state transportation plan that was released on Thursday.  

But the U.S. 64 widening and bridge replacement project between Columbia and Manns Harbor did not make the cut.

Construction of the long-planned 7-mile toll bridge over Currituck Sound between Aydlett and Corolla was considered all but doomed when the project was rated a low priority for Division 1 in the recent North Carolina Department of Transportation data-driven analysis of statewide transportation needs.  

But the state still supported getting the bridge built, said Malcolm Fearing, who represents Division 1 on the State Board of Transportation, and state and local officials worked together to ensure that the bridge was programmed.    

“It’s just a critical project to our area,” Fearing said. “This is a big deal for that transportation corridor.”

The draft State Transportation Improvement Program, or STIP, includes costs and schedules for transportation projects in the state for the next 10 years.  According to a DOT press release, the plan includes a total of about 1,100 projects. Of them, the statement said, 478 are highway projects that will create 300,000 jobs.

First proposed more than 20 years ago, the bridge would cut about an hour off the drive from Virginia to Corolla and drastically decrease heavy summer traffic on U.S. 158 and Highway 12 from the Currituck mainland through the communities on the northern Outer Banks. It would also speed travelers through Currituck County bottlenecks and on to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.

Proponents, which include Currituck and Dare counties, also say that the bridge is needed to speed up hurricane evacuation and commuting time for seasonal workers and would increase jobs on both sides of the bridge.

“I guess we got an early Christmas present,” said Currituck County manager Daniel Scanlon.

Scanlon said that, considering the ongoing discussions with the state, the news was not necessarily unexpected, but, nonetheless, welcomed.

“We have for quite some time been receiving positive statements of support from the leadership,” he said.

Programmed in the draft plan for 2019, when right of way acquisitions would start, Scanlon said it likely will be up to seven years before the public sees activity on the ground. Although he is confident the project could withstand legal challenges, he said the timeline depends on whether a lawsuit slows progress.

“We think everyone anticipates (an environmental group) will sue the project, because that’s what they do,” the manager said. “All the projects around here, that just seems to be the automatic course of action.”

Constructed as a public-private partnership, the project would depend on tolls for much of its funding. Scanlon said that the toll amount would fluctuate according to day and time. Preliminary figures, he said, have ranged from as high as $25 during busiest hours in the summer, to as low as $2 on quiet off-season days. The idea is that the prices may inspire more travel during less heavily traveled times, resulting in decreased congestion overall.  

“At peak times and peak demand,” Scanlon said,  “you’d pay peak dollar.”

Jerry Jennings, DOT division engineer, said that the total project costs for the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge will be about $410 million, with the state share being $173 million. The difference would be made up in toll revenue. The amounts cited in the draft plan are slightly higher updated figures, he said.

Jennings said that the STIP is updated every two years – a process that in the past has pushed projects off into the future or derailed them entirely. But now, he said, projects that are scheduled for the next five years are locked in. That means that the bridge will not be subject to re-prioritization in the next update.

Still, he cautioned, every project potentially can be delayed by the permitting process, and, yes, legal action.  

Other projects in the STIP, Jennings said,  include the Pea Island and Bonner Bridge projects, but they’re considered transitional projects because they were scheduled before June 2015.  The proposed plan also has programmed replacement of a ferry boat, and improvements on Colington Road that involves some widening with paved shoulders, turn lanes and drainage.

Jennings said all the projects in the proposed plan were funded through the division process. The fund allocation for projects had been prioritized and divided by category:  40 percent for statewide, 30 percent for regional, and 30 percent for transportation divisions. He said the criteria used is being re-evaluated to consider more factors for rural areas, such as seasonal congestion and hurricane evacuation routes.

A public comment period and public meetings will be held in March and April to provide an opportunity for input on the draft plan. The STIP is expected to be approved by the Board of Transportation in June 2015. 

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