I continue to be amazed and astounded that two projects that will have enormous impacts on the future of Hatteras and Ocracoke and have been mired down in discussion, negotiation, bureaucratic wrangling, and even a lawsuit took a big step forward on the same day last week.
On Monday, Dec. 20, the National Park Service issued a Record of Decision on its final draft of an environmental study that will be the basis for off-road vehicle regulation, which is expected to be in place sometime in the fall of 2011.
The park has been required to have an ORV regulation since the 1970s. One was prepared in 1978 and sent to Washington, D.C., but, for reasons that remain unknown, it never was approved, published, or implemented ? though the park has been operating more or less under those rules ever since.
Also on Monday, Dec. 20, the Federal Highway Administration signed a Record of Decision on the Bonner Bridge replacement project.
Planning for that project began in about 1990 and has been bogged down by an outlandish number of environmental studies that mostly concerned the impact of the bridge and road improvements to Highway 12 through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Meanwhile, the bridge over Oregon Inlet, built in 1963 with an expected useful life of 30 years, has continued to deteriorate and has undergone extensive repair work to keep it safe for the public 17 years after islanders expected a replacement.
As the years dragged by on both projects, islanders grew increasingly concerned about the public safety issue with the bridge and the pressure put on the Park Service by environmental groups to regulate and curtail ORV access to seashore beaches. That pressure included a lawsuit in 2007 that resulted in a consent decree that closes down large areas of the beaches during bird and turtle nesting season.
And, last week, on the same day, both of these issues started moving forward again.
However, how long they continue to move forward and how quickly they are resolved continues to be a concern. There are still significant issues out there on both.
Islanders were elated that there was finally a decision by state and federal agencies to get going on building the bridge.
The environmental study that the Park Service completed and published will be the basis for next year?s ORV regulations.
Islanders are, for the most part, unhappy about the changes to our lifestyle, heritage, and economy that the Final Environmental Impact Statement and upcoming rule will bring to the islands with many more restrictions on beach access ? by both ORVs and pedestrians ? than we have seen in the past. And environmental groups say they aren?t all that happy with the outcome either.
Here are some thoughts on both as we end the year.
BONNER BRIDGE REPLACEMENT
The North Carolina Department of Transportation is losing no time in moving ahead with the construction of a new bridge that would be parallel to the current Bonner Bridge.
DOT must wait 6 months after the ROD to ask for bids on designing and building the bridge, which is expected to cost about $300 million. It has already pre-screened three design-and-build teams and expects to ask for bids in June.
Construction will not begin until permits have been obtained from all of the federal and state agencies involved. DOT hopes that construction will start in early 2012 and says that the project will take about 3 1/2 years to complete.
With that timeline, the earliest a new bridge could be completed would be 2015, which is still 22 years after the intended useful life of the bridge.
All state and federal agencies have now signed off on the plan, and the first meeting to negotiate permits will be Wednesday, Jan. 4.
The two major negotiators will be DOT and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and possibly the Federal Highway Administration.
DOT and USFWS agreed in principle on several issues to get the record of decision.
–A statement in its Record of Decision that federal-aid highway funding for the project is conditional upon compliance with ?terms and conditions? of the permit that USFWS issues.
–A program of periodic, site-specific forecasting studies be undertaken by mutually agreed upon coastal science experts.
–A statement in the Record of Decision that all restoration work for Phase I be completed and accepted by DOI before the final transfer of title for the new easement area.
The first phase of negotiation that begins next week involves only Phase I of the project ? which includes the construction of the new bridge and some other issues such as the terminal groin on the north end of Hatteras and 3.2 acres of land that DOT will need in the refuge to build the approach road.
DOT spokeswoman Demi said that DOT officials expect that negotiating Phase I with USFWS will be ?a bit easier than what comes down the line.?
Down the line, the two agencies will have to work on the NC 12 Transportation Management Plan, which will address problem areas on the highway as they come up. Those issues are likely to be more controversial than just building a parallel bridge.
One of the big unknown factors in the replacement project is what environmental groups will do in response to the parallel bridge and addressing Highway 12 later.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents several environmental groups, opposes the preferred option and wants to see a 17-mile bridge out into the Pamlico Sound (the ?long bridge?) that completely bypasses Pea Island refuge.
?This decision does not resolve what everyone understands is the biggest problem of overcoming the practical and legal challenges of permitting a road to be constructed through the refuge for the bridge,? Derb S. Carter Jr., director of the Carolinas office of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, told the Raleigh News & Observer last week.
Carter said the sections of the road leading to the existing bridge are prone to being washed out during storms, making it unwise to build a new bridge in the same location.
“With this existing bridge in its current location, Alaska had its bridge to nowhere, North Carolina will have its bridge you can’t get to,” Carter said.
DOT officials have said the cost of the long bridge would be at least $1.5 billion and is unaffordable. The funds are already in place for the shorter bridge, with the cost shared by federal and state government.
Both DOT officials and county officials have said in the past that they expect a lawsuit from the environmental groups on the ROD.
SELC?s comments are included in the public comment and DOT response section of the ROD.
So the questions remain: Will the groups sue to stop the bridge? And will a judge issue an injunction to stop work if they ask for it or allow construction to continue during litigation?
CLICK HERE TO READ THE BONNER RECORD OF DECISION
With the Record of Decision on the Park Service?s Final Environmental Impact Statement on ORV Rulemaking at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, what you see is what you can pretty much expect in the proposed rule, which is expected to be published sometime this winter.
Think of the FEIS as the framework that lays out the Park Service?s responsibilities under its dual mission of conserving resources and providing for recreation and access to public lands.
The FEIS contains more than 1,100 pages of broad discussion on many topics that will influence how the park is managed in the future.
It compares and contrasts six alternatives and the consequences of each on resources and ORV and pedestrian access and names the NPS preferred alternative.
It details pre-nesting areas, buffer zones around bird nests, protections for sea turtles, ORV routes and areas, hours of operation for ORVs, pets rules, beach fires, permits, and beach carrying capacity. It addresses pedestrian access to the beach, as well as ORV access.
Next think of the proposed regulation as the nitty-gritty of rules for operating ORVs on the seashore.
It will contain a preamble and the regulations under the NPS selected alternative in the FEIS. There will be no alternatives to choose from.
Look for it to address such issues as routes and areas for ORVs, hours of operation, speed limits, vehicle characteristics.
There will be a 60-day public comment period on the proposed regulation when it is published later this winter.
You can comment on anything, but don?t expect to change issues that were settled in the FEIS, such as ORV routes and night driving.
The battleground, so to speak on the proposed rule will be what is included and what is not included.
The answer is that it?s more difficult to change the regulation than the environmental studies, which the park is already committed to re-examining every five years, after major hurricanes, or when there is a status change on a protected species.
The people who advocate for more reasonable beach access will want to see as few details as possible in the regulation.
The environmentalists will want to get as many details as possible in the rules.
?Some people think we need to put buffers in the rule,? Mike Murray said at a meeting with reporters last month.
Beach access groups will not want to see buffers in the regulations.
Writing the regulation, Murray said is an ?art? that ?requires some management judgment.?
Murray said NPS will be concerned about getting enough into the regulation to enforce them without getting too specific.
?We want maximum flexibility,? he said. ?I have had experience with parks that locked in regulations that are too specific.
A good example, he said, is Cape Cod, where Murray was assistant superintendent shortly after an ORV rule was implemented.
That rule spelled out a limit on ORV permits, leading to the ?perception of scarcity.? The result was a rush to get permits, which were quickly sold out the first year.
The FEIS calls for permits and dictates beach carrying capacity but does not limit the number of permits.
So during the comment period on the proposed rule, the most important comments will be on what is in the regulation that should not be in there and what needs to be in and was left out.
A few other notes on the published Record of Decision on the FEIS:
The selected action will includes a permit system with both annual and weekly permits.
The ROD adds this: ?…expected permit fees are expected to be higher due to the level of management required for implementation? of the system.
Everyone who drives an ORV will needs a permit and obtaining the permit will include a mandatory education program that must be completed in person at a Park Service facility. There will not be a test, and there will be a voluntary education program for non-ORV users.
So when you arrive on the seashore for your vacation, you will need to spend your first day completing your education program and getting the permit.
Permits will also be required to have a beach fire, though there are many more restrictions on when and where the fires are allowed. Those permits will be free.
THE ROD also includes this:
?The selected alternative will also allow for an ORV corridor year-round, if no resource closures are present, for Cape Point and South Point, maintaining access in these popular visitor use areas and helping mitigate economic effects on the villages.?
Please remember that Cape Point and South Point are indeed designed ORV routes year-round, but in practice, they will never be. The routes are subject to the same resource closures that we have now under the consent decree. The practical effort is that all or much of these two popular areas are closed from spring into late summer.
Also please note that the Park Service released its economic reports on the effects of the environmental impact statement on Dec. 23 ? more than seven months after the public comment period on the draft study closed and three days after it announced its final decision.
I would tell you more about what the three economic reports say, but, since they came out just a week ago and two days before Christmas, I have not read the very long documents yet ? nor have I talked with anyone who has.
I will save that topic for a future blog.
Anyone who had read the reports is welcome to chime in with comments.