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.