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Judge rules in favor of DOT in fight to build Outer Banks bridge

A federal judge Monday ruled in favor of the N.C. Department of Transportation in its fight to replace the 50-year-old Bonner Bridge with a new structure along the Outer Banks.

Judge Louise Flanagan issued a 42-page decision against a motion from the Southern Environmental Law Center to block the project.

The SELC was representing the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, which had contended that the bridge should not be built for environmental reasons.

The SELC also has filed a petition with state officials, trying to block construction. State transportation officials said Monday they are working to settle that issue. Construction cannot begin until the state petition case is settled, however.

The bridge connects N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks with Bodie and Hatteras islands. It stretches 2.5 miles across Oregon Inlet and has been damaged a number of times by storms. The bridge also was damaged when struck by a dredge in 1990.

Those closures cut off Hatteras Island residents from the mainland, except for boat transportation.

The DOT awarded a $215.8 million contact in August 2011 to PCL Civil Constructors to design and build a new bridge. Work was to have started early this year, but the SELC actions have delayed the start.

DOT officials say they have spent more than $56 million to repair the bridge over the past two decades and will spend another $2 million this fall on concrete and girder repairs. They say the bridge is near the end of its service life.

SELC officials said building the replacement bridge near its current location is a waste of taxpayer money, because it will remain susceptible to storm damage. In addition, the group says the structure is a threat to the ecology of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is crossed by the Bonner Bridge.

The environmental group suggested two alternatives – building a bridge across Pamlico Sound to the village of Rodanthe, or using high-speed ferry service for travelers. Some state transportation officials said heavy traffic volume during peak vacation times, with nearly 11,000 vehicles crossing the bridge each day, would make the ferry service unfeasible.

Critics also said routing N.C. 12 through Rodanthe would add considerable travel time.

State Transportation Secretary Tony Tata praised the judge’s ruling, saying “We’ve spent millions of dollars of taxpayer money keeping the existing bridge open, and we know it stands on borrowed time.

“This is a great day for residents and millions of visitors to the Outer Banks, and a historic day for North Carolina.”

Steve Lyttle: 704-358-6107 Twitter: @slyttle
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