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An update on the never-ending saga of replacing the Bonner Bridge

Friday 30 October 2009 at 7:48 pm. Dare County officials were expecting a record of decision – the final step before contracts are put out for bid – on the $300 million Bonner Bridge replacement by the end of October.

That did not happen.  And, according to Jim Trogdon, chief operating officer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the earliest that the record of decision (ROD) might be issued is the end of November.

Even that might be overly optimistic, but Trogdon says that DOT still expects to open the bidding for contracts next February and that the design-build bridge project should be completed by 2014.

“I’m disappointed that it seem to be taking so long – again,” Beth Midgett, chairwoman of the Dare County Citizens Committee to Replace the Bridge Now, said yesterday about the latest timeline on the ROD. The state’s effort to replace the 46-year-old bridge has dragged on for the better part of two decades with stops and starts, controversies, and changes in plans.

Originally, the bridge was to be replaced by a new 2.7 mile bridge over Oregon Inlet. That plan was shelved until the late 1990s and then revived.  

Next came concerns about the condition of Highway 12, which is frequently overwashed in storms. In 1999, a plan took shape to build a 17-mile bridge that would bypass Pea Island and come onto the Hatteras in Rodanthe. The long bridge was also controversial and eventually deemed too costly, though it was favored by environmentalists and some islanders.

In 2007, DOT decided to build the short bridge with a "phased approach" that would build a 2.7-mile bridge over the inlet first, followed in stages by a series of small bridges on Highway 12 to Rodanthe. Last year, DOT decided to replace the phased approach with the "Road North/Bridge South" option. This plan replaces the bridge parallel to the existing span and places the road from the south part of the refuge to the north end of Rodanthe on a bridge.

As options have come and gone and controversies raged around each new decision by DOT, Hatteras islanders have just wanted a new bridge.

A North Carolina Department of Transportation bridge inspection report from June, 2006, rated the condition of the existing bridge as "poor." It was rated 2 out of 100. A later report by consultants also rated the condition of the bridge as “poor” but said that was an indication that it was reaching the end of its useful life and that it was still safe for the traveling public.

Trogdon said that the Federal Highway Administration has signed off the DOT Road North/Bridge South plan and it has been sent to public agencies for a Section 4(f) evaluation, which gives the public agencies involved, such as the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an opportunity to evaluate the effect of the plan on public lands.

The agencies have 45 days to comment, Trogdon said, and the comment period will end about mid-November.  Then DOT and the Federal Highway Administration must go through all of the comments and address any concerns.

“I don’t see anything to preclude contracts going out in February,” he said.

However, no one can blame local officials and islanders for being just a bit cynical.

I wrote a column for The Island Free Press in September, 2007, that a record of decision was expected on the phased approach in the summer of 2008 and the contracts would be put out for bid in February, 2009.

And that’s been the history of the bridge replacement.  We get close to something final happening and the project getting started, and then the timeline starts getting pushed back again.

We hope that is not the case with the delay in the ROD.

However, Mike Bryant, manager of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, has been on record through the entire recent discussions as saying various approaches, such as the phased approach, are not “compatible” with the refuge’s mission.

In 2006, then Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, endorsed the parallel bridge option for public safety reasons, but did not address the problem of the highway and how to deal with the overwash.

Bryant said in an interview today that he and his staff had not finished reviewing the latest consultation document and had not prepared their comments.  And he noted that his comments go up the line to Washington, and that the Department of the Interior makes the actual response.

He would not venture a guess as to what DOI would have to say.

Also, curious is the fact that Trogdon said at a meeting of the Replace the Bridge committee in June that he expected DOT to issue a supplement to last September’s Final Environmental Impact Statement in July or August. That supplement would, under most circumstances, be open to public comment for a period of time.

In the process of planning for the bridge, under the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, environmental impact statements must be prepared. It’s hard to keep track of them in this case.

The state Department of Transportation has already produced at least two Draft Environmental Impact Statements since 1990 and a supplement to the most recent Draft Environmental Impact Statement.  A final Environmental Impact Statement was finished last September. And most of us were waiting for the supplement to the final.


However, Trogdon said in an e-mail today asking what had happened to the supplement, that the Federal Highway Administration has asked DOT to prepare an environmental assessment (EA) “in lieu of” a supplement.

The EA presumably would not be open to public comment, and Trogdon said the document would be out “in a few weeks.”

Therefore, agencies have to finish their comments on the Sec. 4(F) consultation before they see the environmental assessment?

Don’t feel badly if you can’t follow all the convoluted bureaucratic details of the process for replacing the bridge.  Most of us who have been reporting on it for years struggle to keep up.  And, I suspect, that some agency heads can’t keep up to speed either.

The good news is that Trogdon says the $300 million in state and federal funds has already been set aside and is still available.

Trogdon says that DOT is confident that the Bonner Bridge replacement will be built and that it will stay on the latest schedule.

I hope the folks in Raleigh and Washington will understand that some of us down here on the Outer Banks are not holding our breath.

five comments

<span class='registered'>Denny in Dayton</span>

I’ll venture a guess at what DOI will come back and say. They’ll come back with an objection to the plan using some kind of environmental reasoning, possibly relying on something like the endangered species act, and will manage to scuttle the current plan. They seem to always wait till the last minute before sending everyone to back to the drawing board so as to maximize the delay.

As for following "the convoluted bureaucratic details of the process", just gets me to one of my favorite sayings -Cant’ wait till they run health care!

Denny in Dayton (Email ) - 31-10-’09 09:20
Salvo Jimmy

And I won’t be surprised when the ROD for the Short Bridge/Road North/Bridge South is issued if the environs go to court saying the long 17 mile bridge option is best. And get a sympathetic judge to issue an injunction stopping everything until the issue is settled in court.

Salvo Jimmy (Email ) - 31-10-’09 09:27
<span class='registered'>Denny in Dayton</span>

And we all know who’s court it would end up in. I hear he also does a great job designing bridges. Why hire engineers when we have courts and judges?

Denny in Dayton (Email ) - 31-10-’09 11:15
Rob Alderman

Cynical—I personally feel that this Island will never see a new bridge and I feel sure the SELC will sue as soon as any contracts ( if we make it that far) are awarded.

Rob Alderman - 31-10-’09 12:39
john Alley

If I were a suspicious person, I would think that the powers that be are dragging this out until nature takes it out of their hands. All we need is a big storm in the next 5 years and everybody can say “Hey we were working on it” sorry about that.

Imagine the economy of Hatteras Island with ferry service. You book a sat/sun week and are lucky to get there by Monday, only to have to leave on Thursday or Friday to get home within your week vacation.

That ought to bring them out in droves. Please don’t tell me about replacement economies, which are also being denied access. How the hell does that work?

The simple fact is that the NPS has allowed access to public lands for a long time and that access has grown a local economy based on access for the public, whether they drive or walk on public lands. Lot’s of tickets were handed out under present management and I suspect that everyone who was not operating a vehicle wondered what they had done wrong.

ORV’s are the poster child for what’s wrong. Don’t worry about the fact that all access has been terminated.

It’s way late in the game for my government to tell me that we have to change the past because they didn’t do what they were supposed to in the first place.

Oh wait; they really did that in the late 70’s but never mind now, there is a new judge in town and he rules the roost.

john Alley - 02-11-’09 22:50




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