North Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Tony Tata came to the Outer Banks today to publicize the need to move forward with replacing the aging Herbert C. Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet.
With a view of the bridge behind him, Tata stood in a parking lot in front of the rock jetty on northern Hatteras Island to make brief comments and take questions from the local media.
“The new bridge needs to be built, and we need to get moving on that,” he said. “Because right now we’re on borrowed time, quite frankly.
“I would rank the Bonner Bridge at the top 5 percent of transportation issues that we face across the state,” he added. “This is a critical, vital link.”
Plans to replace the bridge, opened in 1963 and the only highway link to Hatteras Island, have been underway for 20 years. After much study and agency and public discussion, the DOT opted for the option that would replace the bridge with a parallel span and address the hotspots along Highway 12 on Hatteras Island in phases.
The bridge, though rated “poor” because of its aging condition, is still considered safe for the traveling public, but a 2006 report by independent consulting groups said the bridge can be patched together only until about 2016.
The state transportation department and the Federal Highway Administration issued a Record of Decision to build the parallel bridge in 2010. A $215.8 million contract for the design and replacement was awarded in July 2011.
Construction was to have started last January with the bridge completed in 2015.
However, no work has started on the bridge and won’t until the legal issues are resolved.
Environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2011 to stop DOT’s plan, and the same groups have now gone to state Superior Court to challenge the Major CAMA Permit for the construction.
“It’s costing millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, and it’s impacting the lives of the people of the Outer Banks,” he said, adding that DOT cares about cost efficiency and the people here.
Tata said that just since the Record of Decision, the division has spent about $15 million on bridge repairs. Since 1990, the total spent on bridge repairs has been $56 million.
The longer the contractor has to wait, he added, the higher the cost of materials and labor will be.
“We’re going to end up paying more,” he said.
He said it is apparent that the environmental groups that have sued the state care little about the additional cost to taxpayers or the people of the Outer Banks.
If “we’ve got to shut this thing down,” he said, the next step would be using the emergency ferry from Stumpy Point on the mainland to Rodanthe, a ride of more than two hours.
He said the state doesn’t want to let it get to that point, but he did visit the emergency ferry docks in Rodanthe and on the mainland today.
“We’re inspecting (the bridge) every day,” Tata said. Every day, he added, 13,000 vehicles cross the bridge. The ferry can only handle about 700 a day.
“We just want to make sure that we’re emphatically clear that there needs to be a new Bonner Bridge.”
The lawsuit is awaiting a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Louise Flanagan of the Eastern District of North Carolina in New Bern. All of the motions and cross-motions by the parties were filed by last November, but there has been no verdict.
“We’re at the mercy of the judge right now,” the secretary said. “If we get a decision from the judge that we can move forward, we’ll start working the next day.”