That is what Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, had to say over the weekend about the 20-year effort to replace the aging Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet.
The comment is Judge’s message to the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.
NCDOT conducted a series of informational meetings and public hearings on the Outer Banks last week to answer questions and get public comment on the latest in a long series of environmental studies of its plan to replace the bridge, which is said to be safe for the traveling public but has a sufficiency rating of 2 out of 100. After analyzing comment from the public, interested special interest groups, and agencies, NCDOT and FHWA will decide if the Environmental Assessment it approved in May will do the job of clearing the way to start the bridge project with a record of decision – or if another study, a supplement to the 2008 Final Environmental Impact Statement, will be needed.
If the Environmental Assessment is deemed adequate, a record of decision to proceed with the bridge replacement project would be issued in the fall.
Another study would take at least a year to prepare and would require more comment by agencies and the public. It would mean another long delay in the already too-long-delayed process of replacing a bridge that was opened in 1963 and was predicted to have a 30-year life expectancy.
Obviously, we are 17 years past the bridge’s life expectancy, and the span has been kept open by a number of costly repair projects.
So at last week’s public hearings, about 40 or so people from Dare County spoke – almost all of them begging for a bridge now.
And many of them were hopeful that this would be the last in a long line of environmental studies that began with the release of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement in 1993.
That seems less likely now.
Last week, two comments on the EA came to light.
One is from the Southern Environmental Law Center, which submitted them on behalf of a half dozen other environmental groups.
SELC says the Environmental Assessment won’t meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and a supplement to the Final Environmental Impact Statement is needed.
There is nothing new there.
SELC has favored a 17-mile bridge out into Pamlico Sound which would land in Rodanthe – or ferry service.
However, the other comments on the EA were submitted on June 28 by the U.S. Department of Interior.
These comments are more stunning.
The Department of Interior finds the EA “deficient.”
In fact, it finds the EA more than deficient. It finds it “inadequate.”
DOI says that by selecting the Parallel Bridge with N.C. 12 Transportation Management Plan (PB/TMP), “…the NCDOT and FHWA are deferring decision-making and analysis of the most contentious, expensive, and potentially environmentally damaging part of the project (N.C. 12) to some later date without providing any clear sense that those future phases can be implemented in light of known logistical, financial, and legal constraints.”
The comments go on to say:
“The Department is concerned that this is not an appropriate basis for Federal action. Specifically, we reiterate our previous concern that the NEPA documentation provided to date is not adequate to support decision the Department must make regarding whether, or under what conditions, to issue the necessary Department authorizations….As such, the Department is concerned that the EA description and analysis for the new PB/TMP alternative is inadequate and an SFEIS is warranted.”
The Department of Interior speaks for both the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which must issue permits for the new plan at Bodie Island and on Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
To be fair, DOI has raised concerns about the project all along. The main one is whether the project is “compatible” with the goals of the wildlife refuge.
However, this is the first time DOI has come right out and said “NO.”
You can read the DOI comments but sticking points include the fact that the bridge would be built before there are solutions and/or plans for the Highway 12 “hotspots” and that the continuing dispute about refuge compatibility and DOT right of way for the road through the refuge.
Furthermore, the DOI comments criticize the elimination in the EA of the 17-mile bridge or other potential alternatives, such as ferries.
Ferries? That’s a viable alternative?
SELC says so. In fact, it notes Hatteras and Ocracoke existed just fine with ferries before the highway and the bridge were built.
Yes, it’s true. SELC says we can turn the clock back almost 50 years.
The SELC comments sound like a rehearsal of its legal brief, and most folks involved in the bridge replacement think that the environmental groups will sue as soon as they can – which is not until a record of decision is issued.
SELC attorneys also apparently don’t mind being hypocritical when it suits their purposes.
Just a few months ago, SELC submitted comments on the proposed mid-Currituck bridge, a seven mile bridge across the Currituck Sound from the mainland to Corolla.
That bridge, SELC said, should NOT be built, not only because of the development it would bring to the northernmost Outer Banks but because of issues of stormwater runoff from the seven miles of asphalt that would degrade water quality in the sound, fisheries, submerged aquatic vegetation, and the like.
Now SELC is supporting a 17-mile bridge out into the Pamlico Sound – as if that would not affect water quality, fisheries, or aquatic vegetation.
How gullible do these folks think we are?
However, it is the DOI comments that have caused the most stir. It seems very unlikely that NCDOT and FWHA can push forward based on the Environmental Assessment, with DOI’s very strong opposition.
So, are we doomed? Should we send the project back to study again?
Warren Judge says no. He and others think it’s time for a record of decision this year based on the EA.
The court fight is coming, so why postpone it for a few more years?
As he says, “Let’s Roll.”
Beth Midgett, the chairwoman of Dare County’s Citizen’s Committee to Replace the Bridge Now, was on the verge of tears – of anger – over the DOI comments.
“How can they think another environmental study can be productive” she asked. “How can they, in good conscience, put off a bridge for more years? They are playing Russian roulette with our lives.”
Midgett continued, “The health, welfare, and well being of my grandchildren depend on a new bridge….And I want to continue our way of life for myself and for them.”
“They are depriving people of Hatteras Island of their lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” Judge said. “DOI is working for SELC or vice versa.”
“They have no sense of social responsibility,” he added.
Another islander called the folks involved with holding up the bridge yet again “soulless.”
And that is a fair description of the lawyers and bureaucrats who hold islanders, their lives and lifestyles, and their ability to make a living hostage to the National Environmental Policy Act.
It is good to protect the environment and animals. But who speaks for the people?
We who live on Hatteras and Ocracoke live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
It’s true that the isolation and wild beauty of the islands have been preserved by the federal government.
But it’s now gone way beyond being grateful for just the preservation.
Everywhere we turn, we are faced with the lawyers and bureaucrats who would take away our cultural and historical access to island beaches, who would keep us from having a safe bridge for ourselves and our visitors, who would take away the heritage and livelihoods of our commercial fishermen.
If folks on Hatteras and Ocracoke seem angry, it is because we no longer have control of our future – of our right to live here, of our lifestyle, of our economic future.
We have been rendered powerless.
We are afraid.
And global warming is the least of our enemies.
Enough is enough.
Give us a record of decision on the bridge now. Let’s roll.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To read the Department of Interior comments on the Environmental Assessment, click here.
To read the Southern Environmental Law Center comments on the Environmental Assessment, click here.
To read, the Southern Environmental Law Center comments on the Mid-Currituck Bridge project, click here.
Click here to read more about the Environmental Assessment of the bridge replacement project and the public meetings.
Click here for a timeline on replacing the Bonner Bridger
HOW TO SUBMIT COMMENTS
If you missed the public hearings, you can still submit comments until Aug. 9.
Citizens who did not speak at the meetings but would like to provide comments can mail them to Drew Joyner, Human Environment Unit Head, NCDOT, 1598 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1598. They may also call or e-mail their comments to Drew Joyner at (919) 431-6700 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
NCDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, and other agencies will review the comments received and then determine if additional environmental studies are needed.
To read the Environmental Assessment and view the project maps, visit the NCDOT Web site or the Outer Banks Task Force Web site. Copies of the Environmental Assessment are also available at the following locations:
• Dare County Planning and Inspections Satellite Office 49815 Highway 12 in Frisco.
• NCDOT Resident Engineer’s Office 349 Waterplant Road, Unit B Manteo
• Dare County Public Library 700 U.S. 64/264 Manteo
• Dare County Public Library 56658 Highway 12 Hatteras
• Dare County Public Library 400 Mustian St. Kill Devil Hills
• Fessenden Recreation Center 46830 Highway 12 Buxton
Copies of the maps are available at the Dare County Planning and Inspections Satellite Office in Frisco and the NCDOT Resident Engineer’s Office in Manteo.