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The Daily Tar Heel

Outer Banks may get new bridge after lawsuits stalled construction

A lawsuit that has halted the construction of a new bridge to an Outer Banks island in North Carolina reached a federal appeals court earlier this month.

Bonner Bridge, which is the only highway connection between Hatteras Island and mainland North Carolina, was constructed in 1963. The state has spent nearly $56 million on repairs and maintenance for the bridge since 1990, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation’s website.

“The DOT spends more time on the Bonner Bridge than any other in the state,” said Lee Nettles, managing director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.

The 51-year-old bridge has degraded over time due to shifting sands and shallow bridge pilings, said N.C. DOT spokeswoman Jennifer Garifo in an email.

A $215.8 million contract for a shorter, less expensive parallel bridge in Bonner Bridge’s current location was awarded in July 2011, with construction scheduled for early 2013.

But the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit that has halted the construction of the parallel bridge due to concerns for the project’s sustainability and wildlife safety.

Derb Carter, a lawyer for the SELC, said a replacement bridge needs to be built in an entirely new location to avoid a local wildlife refuge and future damage caused by storms.

An alternative long bridge has been proposed in a different location through the Pamlico Sound lagoon.

It would stretch 17 miles long and avoid the local Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge as well as stretches of highway frequently washed out by storms.

The long bridge could cost anywhere from $560 million to $1 billion, Carter said.

But Beth Midgett, chairwoman of the Dare County’s Citizen Action Committee to Replace the Bonner Bridge, said the long bridge is not an affordable solution.

Nettles said the parallel bridge would boost the region’s tourism industry as well as protect the livelihood of 34,000 year-round residents of Dare County.

In the months of June, July and August, the Outer Banks’ islands do 70 percent of the region’s annual business, and 25 percent of that is accounted for by Hatteras Island, Nettles said.

And almost 4.5 million people drive to and from the Outer Banks each year, he said.

Midgett said the stalling of the parallel bridge project has affected local residents.

“I think we are all doing a good job moving forward in the best way we can, knowing that we are vulnerable,” she said. “It’s very stressful, and it’s hard to make plans.”

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