While Environmental Lawyers Count Their Millions, North Carolina Outer Banks Residents Cannot Reach Jobs

Last month the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) closed the Bonner Bridge. It was the latest emergency action for the bridge which connects Nags Head and Hatteras; the Bonner Bridge is the only way to reach the mainland from the Outer Banks towns of Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Hatteras, Rodanthe and Salvo. The bridge was closed because routine scanning found that too much sand had eroded from its support structure. North Carolina DOT has a plan to replace the 50-year old bridge, which reached the end of its design life 20 years ago. But endless trivial lawsuits by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) are preventing NCDOT from starting construction.

A brief history: NCDOT first began the process of studying a replacement bridge in 1990 after bridge inspectors found severe deterioration of the steel and concrete supporting structures. The first draft environmental statement was approved in 1993 with a proposed 17.5-mile parallel alternative being selected for further study in 1994. The 17.5 mile alternative would not only bridge Oregon Inlet as the current bridged does, but also bypass low-lying parts of Hatteras Island. In 2001, a new evaluation was conducted to determine if the 17.5-mile bridge was a valid alternative. A supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS) that analyzed five different bridge options for the sight was produced. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)/NCDOT chose one of the new options that simply bridged the Oregon inlet because of three issues with the 17.5-mile bridge: erosion concerns, high costs and a lack of access to a nearby wildlife refuge. Several environmental groups including the Department of Interior (DOI), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and SELC expressed environmental concerns about the shorter bridge’s impact on the wildlife refuge south of the new bridge. To address these concerns, FHWA/NCDOT suggested an adaptive management and joint planning process for decision-making south of the new bridge. Both DOI and EPA accepted the bridge with these changes. In 2010 FHWA signs off on the new routing.

But the SELC remained very unhappy. The organization argued that the shorter bridge was a flawed solution because SR 12, the main road connecting outer banks towns that travels through the wildlife refuge in low-lying parts of Hatteras Island, floods during major storms. So the SELC filed a lawsuit against the State of North Carolina, NCDOT, FHWA, and the Cape Hatteras Electric Membership Cooperation arguing that these entities violated the NEPA process. After the court ruled against them, the SELC decided to appeal that decision and also move forward with a similar lawsuit before a state administrative law judge.

SELC is correct in noting that SR 12 is sometimes closed due to flooding. But the proposed 17.5-mile bridge is a smokescreen. It could never actually be built. The SELC notes on its website that if the state had started building the new bridge in 2006 as it originally planned, it would have been finished by 2010. But the state never planned to build the bridge; it just advanced it for study. And once the state completed an investment grade analysis and found the bridge would cost not $260 million, but $1 billion or more, it abandoned the project. Cost is not the only factor that makes the 17.5-mile option unrealistic. The long bridge could not open to traffic until all 17.5 miles were complete. Even if construction began today, the bridge could not be completed until 2020. And NCDOT would have to maintain the deficient Bonner Bridge for at least six more years. Instead, North Carolina plans to build a replacement for the Bonner Bridge and a series of smaller bridges over the parts of SR 12 that flood that can be built in stages at a cost of less than $500 million.

SELC may be pushing the long bridge because it knows it will never be built. In fact SELC may be hoping that no bridge is ever built in this area. The SELCs preferred solution is for the state to enact a high-speed shallow-draft ferry system that travels at 40 miles per hour, despite the court’s ruling in the lawsuit that such a system is unrealistic.

SELC also ignores several other important factors. The public is supposed to have access to the wildlife refuge. The longer bridge renders this impossible. Even if the longer bridge were feasible, another bridge or elevated road providing access to the refuge either from the north or south would have to be built. The SELC does not include calculations for that road on its website. In fact none of the SELCs calculations are investment grade, the standard in the construction industry.

Local residents have a clear preference for the shorter bridge. While the flooding issues with the wildlife refuge exist, if the bridge does not serve the needs of the island, it is a bad investment no matter what the price. And the SELC seems to be completely oblivious to the needs of residents. When the Bonner bridge is closed for repairs, the economy is affected. And this affects not just residents. All state taxpayers foot the bill for the emergency ferries the state has to operate. Residents of Hatteras Island cannot get to jobs on the mainland. Tourists from the mainline cannot reach the island. (Tourism is the biggest driver of the economy.) And few new residents or businesses are going to locate in an area without reliable transportation. According to recent data, the residents of the island are not wealthy. The adjusted gross income is less than $40,000, or $6,000 less than the statewide average. A higher percentage of the islands’ residents live below the poverty line (20%), than in the state overall, 18%. Many residents truly work paycheck to paycheck.

And who is the SELC? The organization claims to be hard at work for residents championing the environment of the Southeast. Yet the Chapel Hill office staff has 15 attorneys and not one Transportation Engineer, Planner or Policy Analyst. Who does the organization’s professional analysis? So does SELC’s staff of high-priced lawyers sitting in the air-conditioned offices of Chapel Hill understand the struggles of a blue-collar working making less than $40,000 a year who cannot get to the mainland because the Bonner Bridge is closed for repairs? I will let you figure that one out.