N.C. Bridge Sways, Gets Sufficiency Score of 2 Out of 100

The daily commute to a high school on Hatteras Island offered Dare County teacher Lisa Duke a gorgeous drive on a scenic highway with the ocean on one side and Pamlico Sound on the other.

But the few hundred feet that lift up and over Oregon Inlet on the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge proved too unnerving for her. After a harrowing trip in a storm in November, she transferred to a different school to avoid crossing the 43-year-old bridge.

“There are times when you can actually feel it sway in the wind,” Duke said. “It’s not real stationary; it’s not stable, and it’s not safe.”

Engineers give the existing bridge a sufficiency rating of 2 out of a possible 100. It’s overall condition is listed as poor in rankings that include good, fair, poor and critical. But state officials say the poor ranking is because of its age, not an indication of safety. There are no special conditions for heavy vehicles on the bridge, the only highway link to villages strung along Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.

Outer Banks residents who have sought a new bridge for years cheered a decision last week by state and federal agencies to replace the 2.5-mile bridge with a new span in roughly the same place. But a battle is likely with environmentalists who have fought for a 17.5 mile bridge that would curve west into Pamlico Sound, bypassing Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and erosion-prone stretches of N.C. 12.

The deadly collapse of a Minneapolis bridge Aug. 1 heightened concerns that Bonner Bridge could topple into the turbulent waters of Oregon Inlet. Residents and others warn that delays in replacement threaten the lives and livelihoods of 4,000 year-round residents of Hatteras Island and thousands more visitors in the summer.

The earliest a new bridge could be in place is six years away.

In the meantime, drivers watch the bridge nervously from above, and boaters worry from below.

Some people unbuckle seat belts when driving over the bridge, figuring they might have a better chance of escaping a sinking car.

“People are having a very real fear of going over that bridge,” said Natalie Kavanagh, a Hatteras Island resident.

She said a friend driving a van full of older women over the bridge watched in surprise as the women rolled down windows, allowing the wind to mess their carefully coifed hair. “They said, ‘We want to be able to swim out the windows when it falls down,’ ” Kavanagh said.

Kavanagh, 33, who is several months pregnant with twins, has to make regular trips off Hatteras Island to see her obstetrician. She just hopes the bridge is open when she has to leave home for the delivery in March.

When the bridge was built across the inlet in the early 1960s, Hatteras Island was a sparsely populated stretch of low, sandy islands accessible by private boats or ferries. Now the bridge is a critical link in a lifeline for residents and a conduit for visitors to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which attracts 2 million people a year.

Outer Banks residents who pride themselves on being self-sufficient rely on the bridge for food, fuel and everyday amenities. Power lines and telephone lines run under the bridge, and if it goes, they go.

Larris Tolson, 51, who lives in the village of Frisco, remembers before the bridge when a ferry crossed Oregon Inlet, and most people made their living directly from the sea. He also recalls when a dredge boat caught in a storm knocked out a section of the bridge in 1990, forcing residents to again rely on a temporary ferry.

Tolson operated a charter boat for a time, but lack of customers put him out of work. Now he works as a carpenter in a shop beside N.C. 12 that makes deck furniture and hammocks. “If that bridge fell tomorrow, I stand a chance of losing my job. I’d lose my house,” he said.

Unlike some of his neighbors, Tolson doesn’t worry about driving over the bridge. But he says it could be closed because of wear and tear or damage in a storm, creating substantial hardships for islanders. Ernie Seneca, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Transportation, said inspectors regularly examine Bonner Bridge.

“If something needs to be done, we can shut it down on the spot,” he said.

He said the state is planning to spend $40 million on repairs to the bridge to make it safe for the next 10 years. The replacement bridge, scheduled for completion in 2013, will cost $294 million to $347 million.

Additional work to protect and elevate eroding sections of N.C. 12 in Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge south of the bridge would be done in phases.

Critics, including Audubon North Carolina and the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, say that approach is short-sighted because the state may not be able to obtain permits for future work.

“It is clearly impractical and illogical to pretend that the bridge and the connecting road are separate issues,” Chris Canfield, executive director of Audubon North Carolina, said in a news release. “This approach tries to pass on problems in a piecemeal fashion to future decision-makers.”

The groups asked the federal Council on Environmental Quality to investigate whether the state’s plan will violate federal law. They say the National Environmental Policy Act requires the replacement bridge to fulfill a stated purpose and needs to provide continued daily and emergency access from Bodie to Hatteras Island and to improve the reliability of N.C. 12 in light of future shoreline movement.

If the Council on Environmental Quality finds a violation, the bridge will be delayed even longer.

Environmentalists say the long bridge makes more sense environmentally and economically. Although the initial cost is higher – $1.3 billion to $1.8 billion – the phased-in work on N.C. 12 pushes the total cost for the other alternative to $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion.

Island residents say the long bridge is not practical because of the high cost and location in an area vulnerable to winter storms and hurricanes.

“What are we going to do if we have an accident?” asked Richard Marlin, chief of the Frisco Fire Department and an officer with the Hatteras Island Rescue Squad.

He said it would be difficult to reach an accident and difficult to transport the injured. An accident during an evacuation would strand people over the water, he said.

Beth Midgett of Hatteras, head of a group called Replace the Bridge Now, said the short bridge can be built quicker – a key concern for people who have been waiting for a new bridge at least 16 years.

She distributes photos of damaged concrete and corroded steel beams to shore up her contention that the bridge is risky.

Duke, the high school teacher, agrees. She said she previously favored the long bridge but now is just glad the state and federal agencies made a decision.

She and another teacher at First Flight High School in Kill Devil Hills are directing students in class projects focusing on the bridge. Civics classes will lobby government officials, and statistics classes will study reports and prepare information on the bridge.

She hopes they will see the results some day.

“When discussions began on replacing the bridge in 1991, these students weren’t even born,” she said.

Information from: The News & Observer,