And, for the first time in quite some months, the committee and county officials were energized and hopeful that the effort to build a replacement for the aging Herbert C. Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet might move forward.
The committee had a teleconference with Jim Trogdon, North Carolina Department of Transportation’s chief operating officer, and other members of the DOT staff.
“We have concurrence on the merger team, and we are moving ahead,” Trogdon said.
He also noted that DOT has “more confidence that we have the right consensus and are headed in the right direction.”
The merger team consists of several dozen representatives of local, state, and federal agencies that have a stake in the bridge replacement project and the problems with Highway 12 through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
“The merger team,” he told the group, “has agreed on a replacement for the Bonner Bridge and is still working on options for the highway south of Pea Island, and especially at the entrance to Rodanthe.”
The team, he said, agrees that the replacement will be a parallel bridge to the west of the current bridge. It will be 2.7 miles long and will cost about $300 million – money that the state already has in its budget. “In 1992, we had the document ready to go,” Trogdon said, but there was no money. “We will not make that mistake again, even if I have to go around and ask for individual donations.”
The merger team, Trogdon said, has agreed to take an “adaptive management” approach to the problems of ocean overwash on the highway between the bridge and the northernmost Hatteras Island village of Rodanthe.
In other words, DOT is prepared to move ahead with the parallel bridge and address other Highway 12 problems later.
That is possible, Trogdon said, without “segmenting” the project
Segmentation, he said, would be to build a portion of one option that is not common to all other options. However, he noted that all of the options outlined in the Final Environmental Impact Statement have in common building a parallel bridge. So DOT can move forward with the bridge and address the other options for Highway 12 later.
Trogdon said he expected DOT to issue a supplement to last September’s Final Environmental Impact Statement in July or August.
The supplement will detail a “Road North/Bridge South” alternative. The centerpiece of this option will be replacing the existing span with a parallel bridge and taking the adaptive management approach to solving the problems with the highway through the refuge and replacing the highway from the south end of the refuge into northern Rodanthe with a bridge.
A record of decision on the final choice would be issued, he said, as soon as October, and the contracts for the design-build bridge project could be let by next February.
The expected completion would be in 2014.
That’s the best news the committee and county officials have had since their last meeting almost a year ago.
However, Trogdon also said during the conference that the potential for legal action to stop the bridge “may be fairly significant.”
In July of last year, the committee was looking at a Final Environmental Impact Statement that was about to be issued and put out for public comment. And the group was expecting a record of decision on the final plan for the project from the North Carolina Department of Transportation in November of last year. Then that date got pushed back to January or February of this year.
The Final EIS was put out for public comment, which ended on Oct. 27, 2008. However, the record of decision was never issued.
In fact, just two years ago, DOT expected to let the contracts for the bridge construction in February of this year.
And that didn’t happen either.
Meanwhile, the bridge, which is rated a three on a scale that goes up to 100 is undergoing constant repairs to its infrastructure. The DOT says the bridge is still safe, but most Dare County residents are tired of waiting for the replacement project to move forward.
Planning for the replacement started in 1990 and moved forward at a snail’s pace as agencies disagreed about how to address the replacement, the cost of the new bridge, and the highway problems.
In 1999, DOT revived the process with two alternatives – a bridge parallel to the current one and a 17.5 mile bridge that would bypass Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and come on shore in Rodanthe.
Environmentalists and some others preferred the long bridge that would eliminate some of the problems of ocean overwash that sometimes closes the highway through Pea Island – and eliminate some of the objections about relocating the road through the refuge.
After Dare County and other residents objected to the long bridge – on the basis of cost and their fears that access to the refuge would be cut off – DOT settled on a “phased approach” that would build a 2.7 mile bridge to the west of the current one, followed in stages by a series of smaller bridges through the refuge and into Rodanthe.
The most recent bump in the road for the bridge replacement was apparently prompted by a request by the Federal Highway Administration attorneys for more information on DOT’s right of way through the refuge.
Trogdon said that when DOT did more research, new previously unknown deeds from 1953 and 1958 were found in the archives of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Trogdon says that the newly unearthed deeds will let DOT get around the right of way issues on Pea Island.
The bridge, he says, will no longer have to stay in the established corridor, and the right of way can be moved to suit the needs of DOT and the public.
“The idea is that the road has been part of the refuge since the beginning,” Trogdon told the committee in the teleconference. “We do have an easement, right of way through the refuge, and if we need to move the right of way or easement, we can do it.”
Trogdon did note that moving the right of way would depend of feedback from the merger team and on what is deemed to be the least damaging environmental alternative.
Derb Carter, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, has taken issue with published reports of Trogdon’s view of the newly uncovered deeds.
In a letter to Eugene A. Conti, DOT Secretary of Transportation, Carter said Trogdon’s published statements were inaccurate and that the DOT’s current plan to replace the bridge and then deal with the roadway through Pea Island “could lead to inappropriate decisions and will further delay the project.”
Trogdon told the bridge committee this week that Conti has completed his response to Carter. He said Conti told the SELC attorney that the state was “working through the process diligently” and that “the merger team was in agreement” that the parallel bridge should be built now with solutions to the highway through Pea Island addressed later. He said DOT would provide the committee and the media a copy of the letter.
Currently, Trogdon said that lawyers for DOT, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Department of the Interior, continue to study the deeds and the legal right-of-way issues.
He seemed confident that the legal opinions would support the current plan to replace the bridge and deal with other highway issues later.
In response to a question from the committee, Trogdon said that lawsuits must be filed within 180 days of the record of decision.
“That potential,” he said, “may be fairly significant.”
After the teleconference, Bobby Outten, Dare’s County’s assistant manager and county attorney, said that the effort to build a new bridge would not necessarily stop if a lawsuit is filed. It would depend, he said, on whether the plaintiffs in an action asked for an injunction and whether a judge granted the injunction.
“I hope DOT will move forward,” said Beth Midgett, chairman of the county’s Citizens’ Committee to Replace the Bridge after the meeting.
During the meeting, she told DOT’s Trogdon:
“We’ve been told ‘trust us’ for a long time now. You have the feeling that this is something being done to us rather than we are a part of the process.”
The public will have an opportunity to comment on the supplement to the Final Environmental Impact Statement when it is issued later this summer.
FOR MORE INFORMATION AND BACKGROUND
Letter of Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center to NCDOT secretary Eugene Conti
To read the FEIS, view project maps and photos, and access bridge history, visit NCDOT’s Bonner Bridge Web site, http://www.ncdot.org/projects/bonnerbridgerepairs/
The Final Environmental Impact Statement is a 1,300-page document, which is a comprehensive study of the potential social, economic, and environmental impacts related to the bridge’s replacement.
The FEIS, chapter by chapter, can be found at:
Go to the bottom of the page. The chapters are listed under Environmental Impact Studies, Sept. 17, 2008, Final Environmental Impact Statement.
You can also go to The Island Free Press archives and search for Bonner Bridge, and more information is also available on the Dare County Web site: http://www.replacethebridgenow.com/