Court fight over Hatteras Island bridge continues - WNCN: News, Weather

Court fight over Hatteras Island bridge continues

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The Bonner Bridge is a 2.5-mile span over the Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Island that connects as many as 13,000 vehicles with a road to the mainland. The Bonner Bridge is a 2.5-mile span over the Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Island that connects as many as 13,000 vehicles with a road to the mainland.

Of North Carolina's more than 13,500 bridges, almost 5,000 are considered deficient or obsolete. And one of them has been the subject of numerous court fights as the state is in its 15th year of trying to replace it.

The Herbert C. Bonner Bridge is a 2.5-mile span over the Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Island that connects as many as 13,000 vehicles with a road to the mainland during the summer's peak travel days. The bridge was meant to last 30 years when built in 1963.

"Something could pop up on a moment's notice that would require its closing," said Mike Charbonneau, spokesman for the state Transportation Department. "We're in a race against time."

DOT began the process of trying to replace the Bonner Bridge in 1989. It awarded a contract of almost $216 million in July 2011, with construction set to begin in early 2013 on a bridge that would run parallel to the existing one. Environmental groups, which want the state instead to build a 17-mile bridge into the Pamlico Sound, have sued to stop the replacement bridge. The state estimates that bridge would cost more than $1.1 billion to build.

The Southern Environmental Law Center has sued in federal court and also has filed a petition with the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings to stop the parallel bridge. Environmentalists say DOT's plan ignores the environmental effects of that bridge, including on the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and doesn't factor in the numerous problems on N.C. Highway 12, which storms often breach.

"It's common sense that you must be able to reliably reach a bridge for it be a transportation route. Otherwise, Bonner Bridge will just become a long and expensive pier," Jason Rylander of the nonprofit conservation group Defenders of Wildlife said in a news release last month. "This plan will turn Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge into a permanent construction zone with the constant restoration of roads and bridges knocked out by storms."

The Bonner Bridge is one of 14 North Carolina bridges that rank a 4 on a sufficiency rating of 1 to 100, with 100 being the safest. Thirteen bridges rank lower with a sufficiency rating of 2 or 3.

The state maintains 13,549 bridges, of which 5,419 are considered deficient by federal standards. That means they're either structurally deficient — they require repairs and were built to design standards no longer used for bridges — and/or are functionally obsolete — they need to be replaced to meet current and future traffic demands.

The Associated Press analyzed data involving 607,380 bridges in the National Bridge Inventory, which are subject to National Bridge Inspection Standards. On a national basis, there are 65,605 structurally deficient bridges and 20,808 fracture critical bridges, according to the most recently available federal government data.

North Carolina has spent almost $56 million on repairs, maintenance and special inspections for the Bonner Bridge since 1990, DOT said. Another $2 million in repair work is expected to begin this fall.

U.S. District Court Judge Louise Flanagan is considering the SELC lawsuit against DOT. Once all legal issues are resolved, the state and contractor are ready to start work on the new bridge immediately, Charbonneau said. DOT estimates it will take two to three years to build the bridge.

In August, DOT tested two new ramps at Stumpy Point and Rodanthe, sites of an emergency ferry route that can move 700 cars each way per day when N.C. 12 is inaccessible, which happened after Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. That project cost almost $2 million.

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