Boiled down to its essence, replacement of the decrepit bridge over Oregon Inlet comes down to building a new span at about the same place as the existing one.
So why, after nearly two decades of planning, is the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge replacement project still stuck in a bureaucratic impasse?
That’s one dilemma Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland, at the request of Secretary Ken Salazar and the North Carolina congressional delegation, came to the Outer Banks this week to attempt to resolve.
“You don’t really have that much of a complicated issue. You’re moving the bridge a few feet,” Dare County Manager Bobby Outten told Strickland during a hastily-planned evening meeting on Thursday, Sept. 23, in Manteo.
“It would nice if Fish and Wildlife was saying, ‘How can we help you get this bridge built?’. We see it that every time we get to the point where you can do something, another stumbling block is pulled out.”
Two Department of the Interior agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, declined recently to sign off on the latest plan that would immediately start construction of a new bridge just west of the old one, and plan later work on the Highway12 corridor to Rodanthe as needed.
“We believe it’s nothing but a stalling process until our bridge falls,” Allen Burrus, vice-chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, said. “I know that sounds paranoid, but after so much time, we have to wonder about it.”
Environmental groups that oppose the bridge plan have lately been hinting that ferries may be the best solution, an idea that islanders say would decimate the tourism-based economy and endanger the residents.
Tall and affable, Strickland made a point of shaking hands with most of the 30 or so people in the room prior to the meeting, which included representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Richard Burr, R-NC, and Kay Hagan, D-NC, and U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-NC., as well as from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Dare County.
Beth Midgett, chair of the Dare County Citizens’ Action Committee to Replace the Bridge Now, and several beach access proponents made the trek from Hatteras Island to give Strickland their input.
State Rep. Timothy Spear, a Creswell Democrat, was in attendance, but state Sen. Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat, sent aide Chris Dillon to represent him.
Noting Bonner’s poor condition, Spear brought up the specter of failure with hundreds of vehicles stuck on the span during the recent hurricane evacuation.
“That’s just a scary thought,” he said.
Strickland, also Salazar’s chief of staff, said that as a former DOT official in Colorado, he is sensitive to the importance of safe transportation systems. He said he also happened to have been in Minneapolis to witness that city’s fatal bridge collapse.
“The safety issues are a very specific concern to us,” he said.
With the release of the long-term off-road vehicle management plan for Cape Hatteras National Seashore expected at year’s end, considerable comment was also made about the controversial beach driving issue.
John Couch with Outer Banks Preservation Association said that the huge buffers around nests at Cape Point have devastated his business.
“One thousand meters of protection — that is not common sense,” he said. “That chokes off access. You can’t walk there. You can’t fly a kite.”
Stan White, who represents Dare on the DOT board, said that he knew the issue had gotten out of hand a few years ago when he saw “armed guards” at the beach.
White suggested to Strickland that DOI imitate the successful peregrine falcon restoration program that involved relocating eggs, rather than maintaining costly efforts to keep people and predators away from a few birds.
“Why don’t we do that with these piping plovers?” he asked.
Strickland, who toured the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge today assured everyone that he will relay their comments to his boss.
“I think you all are very articulate on making your point and we’re here to solve problems,” he said.
Although he didn’t specify whether he was referring to one or both issues, Chris Dillon said he noticed a sign “Cape Hatteras National Seashore, 100 miles” along the highway as he was driving to the meeting.
“I was thinking, what if DOT had to put a sign under that that said ‘CLOSED’?” he said. “It’s a government-created disaster.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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
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, “DOT takes on DOI over Bonner Bridge replacement.”
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 Bridge