On Tuesday, November 13, a group of community and government representatives drove through several feet of recently dumped rainwater to meet in Hatteras village and discuss, appropriately enough, how to keep N.C. Highway 12 open for the long haul.
It’s no secret that N.C. Highway 12 has a number of “hot spots,” or sections of the road where storm surge or heavy rains regularly flood the highway, making it difficult to access.
The tri-villages, northern Hatteras, and northern Ocracoke Island have all been inundated with water at some point in the past few months, due to Hurricane Florence, Tropical Storm Michael, and a few non-tropical storms that brought buckets of rain regardless. In fact, one of the most commonly asked questions by locals after the aforementioned events was “Is Highway 12 passable?” and this question seems to be asked more and more, with every passing storm.
But as anyone involved with the push to replace the Bonner Bridge will tell you, (an endeavor that literally went on for about 20 years), fixing Hatteras and Ocracoke Island’s delicate highway isn’t easy. There are a number of figurative roadblocks that prevent us from installing a few bridges, or relocating the road, or doing another round of beach nourishment, and calling it a day.
This is exactly why Hatteras community leaders, NCDOT representatives, Dare County Board of Commissioner (BOC) Danny Couch and Chairman Bob Woodard, and Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent David Hallac gathered in Hatteras Village on a November Tuesday to brainstorm, examine options, and figure out the next steps. It was an effort spearheaded by Hatteras Village Civic Association Chair Karla Jarvis, and attendees reported that it was certainly a worthwhile gathering.
“It was basically a broad discussion on what residents, organizations, and civic groups of Hatteras Island can do, and it had all the parties at the table from the DOT to the National Park Service,” said meeting attendee and N.C. Board of Transportation member Allen Moran.
“It was a valuable experience, and everyone came out of there encouraged for the long term,” said Danny Couch. “For the short term, we’ll have to stick to doing what we know how to do, which is move sand.”
Granted, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) is phenomenal at cleaning up the highway after a storm. During several weather events in the past two months alone, the NCDOT had crews and equipment at the ready in case they were needed, and were subsequently clearing the highway in record time.
But clearing the road of water and debris can’t be kept up indefinitely, and there are other considerations that can make this solution ineffective as well. For example, while northern beach communities like the Town of Kitty Hawk can simply pump excess stormwater off the roads, FEMA regulations prohibit the same process on isolated sections of Highway 12.
“There’s some regulations through FEMA, and [as such], there’s some caveats there,” said Moran. “Basically, if there’s a certain number of homes that are threatened with water inundation, then you are allowed to pump until the water is at a certain level… But we can’t use that here [in areas without homes.] Thankfully, people’s homes aren’t being flooded in these sections of the highway, but we don’t have that exemption.”
The launching point for uncovering alternatives that could work was a N.C. Highway 12 Feasibility Study that was prepared for the NCDOT in February of 2016.
The study was “a preliminary step to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to identify potential project scope, a range of estimated costs of completion, and project-specific concerns related to preserving the North Carolina (NC) 12 corridor between Hatteras Village and the unincorporated limits of Frisco, North Carolina.”
So it wasn’t a set to-do list, per se, but rather an examination of options when it came to both short-term (5 year) and long-term (50 year) solutions for stabilizing N.C. Highway 12 in this increasingly fragile area.
If you have a ton of extra time, and want to read the 58-page study in its entirety, you can find it here: https://www.ncdot.gov/projects/nc-12-south/Documents/R-3116B_feasibility_study.pdf
But here’s a quick overview of the options that were identified:
Short Term Options for a 5-Year Timeframe:
- Short-Term Alternative 1: Road Relocation A – Alternative 1 proposed roadway improvements would begin at the western project terminus near Elizabeth Avenue and extend east for 1.5 miles on new alignment, tying into the existing N.C. 12 roadway approximately three-quarters of a mile south of Osprey Way. This alternative would shift the roadway approximately 100 to 120 feet north of the existing roadway, and would also include new dune construction.
- Short-Term Alternative 2: Road Relocation B – Alternative 2 proposed improvements would begin at the western project terminus near Elizabeth Avenue and extend east for 1.8 miles on new alignment, tying into the existing N.C. 12 roadway approximately three-quarters of a mile south of Osprey Way. This alternative would require the shifting of the roadway approximately 200 feet north of the existing roadway for over 0.5 mile, then extend onto a 2,900-foot bridge structure, returning to over 0.5 mile of roadway before connecting with the existing N.C. 12. The project would also include dune construction.
- Short-Term Alternative 3: Beach Nourishment – This alternative would leave the existing roadway in current location, and implement one cycle of beach nourishment and dune maintenance to protect the roadway.
- Short-Term Alternative 4: Combination of Road Relocation and Beach Nourishment – Alternative 4 proposed improvements would begin at the western project terminus near Elizabeth Avenue with 3,000 feet of beach nourishment, 1,700 feet of which would be located in front of relocated roadway. Approximately 1.3 miles of roadway would be relocated on new alignment. The new alignment would tie into the existing N.C. 12 roadway approximately three-quarters of a mile south of Osprey Way.
Long Term Options for a 50-Year Timeframe:
- Long-Term Alternative 1: Road Relocation with Bridge – This solution would implement a new roadway which would then extend onto a three-quarter mile, pre-stressed concrete bridge. One-half mile of relocated roadway would connect the bridge to the existing roadway approximately 700 feet west of the Frisco Bathhouse parking area
- Long-term Alternative 2: Road Relocation with Bridge – This solution is also a relocated road / bridge combo, with a 1-mile pre-stressed concrete bridge which would extend from the Creed Hill Lifesaving Station south of Frisco to .5 miles north of Elizabeth Avenue.
- Existing Alignment with Beach Nourishment – This solution incorporates 1.5 miles of beach nourishment from Elizabeth Avenue to approximately 600 feet west of the Frisco Bath House parking area. Beach nourishment and dune maintenance would occur at five-year intervals, however, the actual intervals would be greatly influenced by extreme weather events.
- Long-term Alternative 4: Bridge in Existing Easement and Beach Nourishment – This alternative combines a bridge and beach nourishment, and proposed improvements would begin at the western project terminus near Elizabeth Avenue and extend 1,800 feet on new alignment with beach nourishment before tying into a 1.5 mile pre-stressed concrete bridge located next to the existing roadway within the NPS right-of-way. The bridge would tie into 1,150 feet of roadway connecting to existing N.C. 12 just east of the Creed’s Hill Lifesaving Station.
Sounds good, right? There are lots of solid options in the above list, which could potentially solve the flooding problem in northern Hatteras village.
But here’s where we get to the central problem, and one of the main focuses of the discussion group – Costs.
Let’s start with the bad news first, and get that out of the way – funding any improvements to N.C. Highway 12 is going to be expensive, as the cheapest alternative for a potential 5-year fix is $5.4 million.
And this is just for one section of Hatteras Island. CHNS Superintendent David Hallac noted in a post-meeting interview that there were certainly other stretches of N.C. Highway 12 that require attention as well.
“The [area] we were really worried about after Hurricane Florence was Ocracoke Island,” said Hallac. “There was a section of more than a mile where dunes were completely overwashed, the road was damaged, and the island was chipped away on both sides.”
“I think it was a wake-up call that there’s no place to move the road anymore, because the island has narrowed so much, and we’ll have to put our heads together to find a long-term solution there.”
For argument’s sake, let’s say we ignore Ocracoke, the tri-villages, northern Buxton, and the stretch of Highway 12 near the Pea Island Visitors Center for a moment, (which will all need to be addressed at some point), and just concentrate on northern Hatteras village.
Even there, in this one section of the road, there are hurdles with obtaining funding for the short-term solutions, let alone the long-term ones.
It helps to understand the very intricate processes of the State Transportation Improvement Program and the new-in-2015 Strategic Transportation Investments Law. The purpose of the STI Law is to allow NCDOT to maximize North Carolina’s existing transportation funding to enhance the state’s infrastructure, and support economic growth, job creation, and high quality of life.
Per the feasibility study, STI established the Strategic Mobility Formula, which is a way of allocating available revenues based on data-driven scoring and local input. Proposed transportation projects go through a prioritization process where they are evaluated through an analysis of the existing and future conditions, the benefits the project is expected to provide, the project’s multi-modal characteristics, and how the project fits in with local priorities. Generally, the projects that increase capacity, safety, connectivity, and economic development score higher under the prioritization formula.
So essentially, the way that North Carolina earmarks money for transportation projects is heavily dependent on population and traffic volume – two things that the islands don’t have year-round.
“The biggest problem with all of the projects is the funding for them is based on prioritization, or a point scale,” said Moran. “Our local projects don’t score well due to traffic volume, population, and the number of residents. We’re behind the eight ball on that one.”
That’s the bad news.
But here’s the good news – the ball is now rolling.
“The next step is that the DOT is going to look into what kind of grants and funding options there are for all the various feasibility options, and then come back in a couple months, get back together, and see where are we [then],” said Moran. “We are all in agreement that something needs to be done and we need to start the ball rolling, no matter what the eventual solution is – likely a short term option in the interim until we can get a long term option going.”
And Couch and Moran both note that these prospective grants are out there, such as the grants that provided funding for the new Ocracoke Express Passenger Ferry.
“We’re looking at getting a couple grants to at least study the problem,” said Couch. “If you’re going to get any attention from the state of North Carolina, you need to have the documentation that states your position and your case.”
Couch notes that the recently completed Outer Banks Scenic Byway initiative certainly helps make the case for obtaining funds, too, as the Scenic Byway, one of only four National Scenic Byways in the state, links the Outer Banks to Down East and the Crystal Coast, Cape Fear Coast and beyond in a major way. “That is strategic in that it will give us some credibility into breaking the rural and urban divide.”
“We also talked about some sort of federal land grant, or land access grants,” said Moran. “The way it works is that North Carolina gets a set amount of money each year from the [federal government] for federal lands access, which we certainly qualify for.”
And perhaps the best news is that all of the parties involved want to move forward, and want to work together – which, consequently, they already do, really well.
“Dave Hallac has been a tremendous asset for all of Dare County, but especially Hatteras Island and the DOT,” said Moran. “As always, he is willing to help, and willing to do what he can.”
“The National Park Service is extremely pleased with NCDOT and extremely lucky to have NCDOT as a partner in transportation,” said Hallac. “The things they do to maintain transportation are heroic at times, and we are really lucky to have them as a partner.”
So there is a silver lining in that the problem with N.C. Highway 12 is being discussed on a broader level, and is maintaining the attention of all of the parties involved.
“[The discussion] started with all of us looking for immediate solutions to the water issues we have in Hatteras village, but it morphed into a broader, long-range plan,” said Couch. “What are we going to do to make sure our children and grandchildren will be able to come and go, and thrive on the Outer Banks?”
“We’re going to have to deal with what Mother Nature is handing us, and it’s not going to be convenient,” he added. “But we can’t get away doing what we’ve been doing anymore, which is reacting to each individual storm event. We either start being proactive now or it’s only going to get worse.”
Now all we have to do is wait for the next steps, wait for the ball to keep on rolling, and start on the long road to finding solutions that will work now, as well as years from now.
“Everyone understands this isn’t a short term quick fix, but a process,” said Moran. “Beth Midget [and Natalie Perry Kavanagh] started the ball rolling for the Bonner Bridge years ago, and it’s just now coming to fruition, so it’s a perfect example of how you have to start somewhere to get the ball rolling.”