Along the Outer Banks, NCDOT battles the sea

Bulldozer crews push sand and engineers plan new bridges to protect N.C. 12, the Outer Banks highway, from the encroaching Atlantic

03/12/2013 8:53 AM

03/12/2013 8:59 AM

These days, it doesn’t take a hurricane to clog travel plans for days at a time on the Outer Banks. But past hurricanes share some of the blame for expensive problems that will linger into the spring, and perhaps for years to come.

After a winter storm last week flushed water and sand across the barrier islands, N.C. 12 has been impassable at a handful of locations from Kitty Hawk to Hatteras.

The state Department of Transportation began a series of public hearings Monday on a plan to lift more than 4 miles of N.C. 12 on bridges high above the surf at Pea Island and the “S-Curves” near Rodanthe, where Hurricane Irene opened new breaches in 2011 – and where the highway is closed again this week for all but a few hours a day.

Depending on the outcome of an environmental lawsuit, DOT also could start construction this year on a replacement for the old N.C. 12 bridge over Oregon Inlet.

Transportation Secretary Tony Tata invited coastal residents to a town meeting in Manteo on Monday evening. He was not available for comment.

Gov. Pat McCrory joined Tata for the gathering. They were expected to get an earful on issues including the intermittent ferry service between Hatteras and Ocracoke, a plan to collect new or increased tolls on other ferry routes starting in July – and N.C. 12.

Some coastal scientists have warned DOT against building the new bridges on barrier islands that are steadily retreating from the Atlantic. According to an environmental assessment published by DOT in January, the Pea Island bridge will be standing in the surf by 2060.

“If they’re going to have a bridge, they have to have a road – and that road isn’t going to be there,” said Stan Riggs, an East Carolina University coastal geologist who has advised DOT on the Pea Island project. “You can build the best bridge in the world, but you’re not going to survive in that surf zone out there for very long, because that’s a high-energy system.”

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