U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., spent the better part of a day last week on the Outer Banks for what was billed as an ?information session? on replacing the Bonner Bridge.
It was yet another step in a concerted effort by North Carolina?s congressional delegation and local officials to bring two agencies together, so the much discussed and much studied project to replace the aging bridge over Oregon Inlet can move ahead.
The two agencies involved are the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of the Interior. The two have been at loggerheads for much of the past 20 years of planning for the replacement bridge, and the conflict escalated over the summer as everyone, especially islanders and visitors who depend on the bridge, hoped the project was finally going to get underway.
In May, NCDOT issued an Environmental Assessment (EA), which it hoped would be last in a long list of environmental studies on how to deal with a bridge that was opened in 1963 with an estimated lifespan of 30 years and the main highway on Hatteras Island that is frequently threatened from overwash from the encroaching Atlantic Ocean.
DOT decided on an option ? Parallel Bridge with a Highway 12 Transportation Management Plan — that would build a bridge very near to the current one and deal with problem areas of Highway 12 as necessary. DOT officials said the EA met all the requirements under various laws and regulations and that no further study was required.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which has to sign off on the plan, agreed.
DOT asked for and got public comment from other government agencies and the public.
Among the agencies that responded in writing to the EA was the Department of the Interior, which includes both the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency that has maintained in the past that most of the proposed solutions to the Highway 12 problems are not ?compatible? with the mission of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge through which the roadway passes.
DOI officials said that they found the EA ?deficient? and even ?inadequate.?
The department added that by selecting the Parallel Bridge with the Highway 12 Transportation Management Plan, ??the NCDOT and FHWA are deferring decision-making and analysis of the most contentious, expensive, and potentially environmentally damaging part of the project (N.C. 12) to some later date without providing any clear sense that those future phases can be implemented in light of known logistical, financial, and legal constraints.?
Furthermore, DOI criticized DOT and FHWS for not giving more consideration to a 17.5-mile bridge that would bypass the refuge ? which DOT says is unaffordable ? or using ferries ? which almost everyone considers impractical.
In early August, the Department of Interior escalated the dispute by responding to comments from North Carolina?s congressional delegation, who urged the agency to move on with the project. In its response, DOI repeated its criticism of NCDOT and claimed that the transportation agency had not adequately responded to information that DOI has been requesting before it signs off.
Then in September, DOT shot back.
In a strongly worded letter to the congressional delegation, Jim Trogdon, DOT?s chief operating officer, took issue with most of the Department of Interiors claims.
?To date,? Trogdon wrote, ?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.
DOT said earlier this summer that it expected to sign a Record of Decision on its preferred alternative by the end of the year, so the project could move forward.
However, without DOI?s concurrence, that now seems unlikely.
And that?s when local officials and North Carolina?s congressional delegation went to work to try to get the two agencies to sit down and hammer out their differences.
Hagan said in a telephone interview this week that she contacted DOI Secretary Ken Salazar in August to urge DOI to get on board and to work out its differences with NCDOT.
At the end of September, Salazar dispatched Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, to the Outer Banks, to help resolve the bureaucratic impasse. He met with local and state officials and representatives of the congressional delegation.
He also toured the bridge and Pea Island refuge.
Last month, Warren Judge and Allen Burrus, chairman and vice-chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, and county manager and attorney Bobby Outten made a day trip to Washington, D.C., to meet at DOI with Strickland and Jane Lyter, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, and others.
?They were very blunt and very helpful,? Burrus said after the meeting.
?My impression is that (Strickland) has made it very clear that Secretary Salazar has given him the assignment to get this done,? Judge added.
?They communicated to us that they would do whatever they could to get it done,? Burrus said.
Reading between the lines here, it seems clear that DOI doesn?t want to be holding up the replacement of a bridge that is 17 years past its predicted lifespan and has a sufficiency rating of 2 out of 100.
However, DOI has also made clear in its comments that it does not believe the Environmental Assessment or the option chosen by DOT and FWA complies with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
And the 800-pound guerilla in the room for these meetings is the environmental groups that strongly oppose the chosen option. They, too, want either a long bridge or ferries.
Also, it is just a given that many of those involved with the project ? on the local, state, and federal level — expect a lawsuit soon after a Record of Decision is issued. And the Department of Interior does not want to have to go to court and defend a decision it has already said does not comply with the law.
Burrus and Judge said that they were ?hopeful? after the Washington meeting that the two agencies can work out their differences.
Hagan visited Dare County on Thursday, Dec. 4, a wet and windy day.
Despite the weather, Hagan, whom several who met with her described as ?a real trooper,? boarded a boat with the county officials and Army Corps of Engineers staffers to ride under the bridge and get a look at its sorry condition up close.
After the boat ride, she rode over the bridge and toured Pea Island with Mike Bryant, project leader for USFWS, and Jane Lyder of DOI.
And what did she think about her up-close look at the bridge?
?It?s very obvious to me that this bridge is ready for replacement,? she said. ?It is critical for the residents and the tourists.?
She talked about public safety concerns, but added that the bridge is also vital to the Dare County economy, which relies on tourism.
She emphasized that she is committed to continue working with all involved to move the plans for a new bridge forward ?as soon as possible to ensure that travel to and from Hatteras Island is safe and that the tourism industry in the county can grow.?
She also said more meetings are scheduled to try to hammer out something that NCDOT, FHWA, and DOI all can live with.
There was a meeting in Washington just two days ago that Judge said involved Lyder for DOI and folks from DOT and FHWA and was intended to get ?all of the people on the same page.?
The next meeting, he said, will be between DOI and DOT in Raleigh.
Lyter?s goal, Judge said, is ?to get a memo of understanding between the federal government and North Carolina, by the end of the year.?
Though a memo of understanding is different from a Record a Decision, it seems clear that if the memo can be hammered out, the ROD can be signed.
Victor Barbour, DOT?s technical services administrator, said that the department is still hopeful that it can have an ROD at about the same time or maybe slightly before the memo of understanding.
Interior officials have made it clear that they want more details from DOT before they sign off on the project.
Barbour said there are three issues that DOI wants settled. It wants modeling of Highway 12, which would include such things as projections of shoreline erosion and how DOT plans to respond, and it wants a commitment from DOT to continue the modeling as the project progresses. He added that there are also ?property issues? where the bridge will land and the fate of the terminal groin on the north end of Hatteras Island.
This still leaves us limbo — again. The end of the epic struggle to replace the bridge has so many times seemed within reach, only to fade away again.
It?s past time to end the uncertainty.
Interior officials have now said what they want. We hope that DOT can produce what has been asked for — or that there is some sort of compromise that will get us a new bridge.
And, on a final note, Burrus delivered another 100 letters from the Bridge Moms group to Hagan. She said she would deliver them to the White House this week, where they will join the 200 or so that were delivered earlier this fall to First Lady Michelle Obama. They were written by folks ? mostly women and mostly mothers ? who are concerned about the safety of their families while they travel the Bonner Bridge.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To read the Editor?s Blog about the Department of Interior comments, go to
To read the Editor?s Blog about NCDOT?s response to the Department of Interior, go to
To read the Department of Interior comments on the Environmental Assessment, click here.
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?s Sept. 2 letter to the congressional delegation.