The North Carolina Department of Transportation has taken on the U.S. Department of Interior over its opposition to the current plan to replace the aging Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet.
In a letter to North Carolina Sens. Kay Hagan and Richard Burr and U.S. Rep Walter Jones and four of his colleagues on Sept. 2, Jim Trogdon, DOT?s chief operating officer, made the department?s most aggressive argument so far for proceeding with the bridge replacement without further delays or environmental studies.
The Department of the Interior submitted comments on the Environmental Assessment and claimed in an Aug. 5 letter to the congressional delegation that the ?new plan put forth by the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration does not address environmental and statutory issues associated with this project.?
Trogdon strongly takes issues with DOI in his letter to the delegation.
He says that on Dec. 11 of last year, DOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) met with representatives of the White House Council on Environmental Quality to discuss concerns about the replacement project.
?The CEQ representatives,? Trogdon wrote, ?urged the USFWS and FHWA to work together to resolve any remaining issues with the project so that NCDOT could proceed with the replacement of the Bonner Bridge as soon as possible.
?To date,? Trogdon continued, ?we have experienced no sense of urgency or cooperation from the DOI and specifically the USFWS.?
Trogdon wrote that, despite what DOI wrote to the Congressional delegation, DOT is not convinced that the Department of Interior ?remains committed to finding a workable solution to this complex and important project.?
In fact, he said that DOT and the Federal Highway Administration currently have agreement from all state and federal agencies on the current preferred alternative ? except the Department of Interior.
You may remember that back in May, NCDOT and several other agencies signed off on an Environmental Assessment on the bridge project, and DOT and the Federal Highway Administration signed off on a plan that is now known as Parallel Bridge/NC 12 Transportation Management Plan.
That would replace the Bonner Bridge with a new one parallel to the current span and address problems with ocean overwash on Highway 12 through Pea Island as problems occur.
DOT opened a 60-day public comment period on the Environmental Assessment in early June and conducted public hearings and informational meetings on the Outer Banks.
The issue here is whether DOT and FHWA accept the Environmental Assessment and issue a Record of Decision on the bridge replacement or whether the transportation agency must conduct yet another environmental study on the bridge.
Trogdon wrote that the department received 4,062 comments from local residents, business owners, and tourists ? all of whom view the aging bridge as a public safety issue and a threat to the welfare and economic well-being of Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.
He said only nine of the comments were not in favor of the preferred alternative.
?A common theme heard during the public hearings,? he said, ?was the feeling that the government, specifically the USFWS, by continuing to stall a critical public safety project in endless environmental studies, was not working for the overall public good.?
Trogdon said that DOT and FHWA arrived at their preferred alternative ?after almost 20 years of study on this project and analyzing approximately 33 different design options.?
He noted to the congressional delegation that DOT was aware that both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service prefer the longer, 17-mile bridge, known as the Pamlico Sound Bridge Corridor.
However, he said NCDOT and FHWA, as part of their environmental studies, conducted a thorough financial analysis to determine when the Pamlico Sound alternative could be funded.
The analysis, he said, showed that there was no available source of money to fund the long bridge alternative.
?NCDOT has responded to the citizens of North Carolina by attempting to move the project forward as quickly as possible; we ask that DOI do the same,? he wrote.
And he noted that DOT continues to spend $300,000 annually for inspection and maintenance to keep the existing bridge viable while waiting for DOI to complete its ?ongoing analysis.?
?We have asked for a timeframe for their response, yet they have not provided one.?
This standoff continues despite the fact that then Secretary of the Department of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne wrote in a July, 2006 letter he favored proceeding with the replacement of the bridge ? the parallel bridge ? to address ?the clear and present safety issue for all concerned.?
Trogdon closed his letter to the congressional delegation by urging them to take DOI up on its invitation for a briefing on the project. And he said the North Carolina Department of Transportation would like to attend.
It?s long past time for the Department of Interior to get on with issuing the permits necessary for the parallel bridge to protect the public safety ? the lives of islanders and visitors.
Click here to read the Aug. 5 letter from the Department of the Interior to the North Carolina congressional delegation. This letter is to Rep. Walter Jones.
Click here to read the North Carolina Department of Transportation Sept. 2 letter to the congressional delegation
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 the editor?s blog, ?Enough is Enough on Bonner Bridge replacement ? Let?s roll?
Click here to read the editor?s blog, ?An update on replacing the Bonner Bridge.?
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