Bonner Bridge Replacement

In 2011, Hurricane Irene washed out Highway 12. Hurricanes aren't the only threat to Highway 12, Tropical Storm Ida washed out the road in 2009.


Photo © USFWS, Tom MacKenzie

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Settlement maintains access to Hatteras and protects refuge More »

For many years, North Carolina has struggled to deal with increasing transportation challenges on the tourist mecca and wildlife haven of the Outer Banks. Primary among them is the frequency with which storms and tides disrupt N.C. Highway 12, the only access route to and from Hatteras Island via the outdated Bonner Bridge. The road is often washed out as sea level rises, and extreme weather has only made the problem worse. The state’s efforts to keep the old route operational were degrading the once-pristine Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

On behalf of our clients Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Southern Environmental Law Center negotiated an agreement with state and federal authorities to replace the aging Bonner Bridge, deal with the most vulnerable portions of N.C. 12, and preserve the refuge. The settlement is a major step forward for everyone who treasures Hatteras Island.

After more than a decade of SELC advocacy, the parties reached agreement after an August 2014 court ruling. The federal Court of Appeals acknowledged that the bridge is “essentially worthless” without the 13-mile stretch of highway that passes through the narrow wildlife refuge before arriving at the inhabited portions of Hatteras Island, and that any plan for maintaining the route must take that into account while avoiding harm to the refuge.

Previously, the state spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars rebuilding the road in place each time it washed away. Authorities seemed intent on ignoring the rising ocean even as highway segments and houses washed out to sea.

Now, however, the North Carolina Department of Transportation will promote options to move the most vulnerable parts of the highway out of the wildlife refuge and onto permanent bridging in Pamlico Sound, where it can better withstand increasing storms and rising seas. The settlement outlines a scope of work that will begin with the replacement of Bonner Bridge and termination of construction of a new permanent bridge within the wildlife refuge. The next phase will include construction of a bridge near Rodanthe to bypass eroding beaches and exploration of opportunities to reroute additional miles of road off the most dynamic parts of the island and through Pamlico Sound. The map below illustrates options made possible under the agreement.

Ultimately the settlement validates our longstanding belief that responsible planning is needed along our coasts given the challenges of storms, the shifting barrier islands sands, and sea level. Our best chance to protect life on Hatteras is to acknowledge and plan for these dynamics.

This solution not only will replace the aging Bonner Bridge; it will help preserve safe, reliable access to Hatteras Island, and it will protect Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Read The News & Observer editorial on the agreement here: Two sides meet in middle on Bonner Bridge deal.

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Outer Banks NC 12 Access Unreliable for Hatteras

The state's current plan to replace Bonner Bridge, the only bridge connecting the mainland to North Carolina’s Hatteras Island, at its same location ignores the obvious and persistent problems of NC 12 south of the bridge through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge to Rodanthe on the barrier island. The current plan to rely on a stretch of road continually overwashed or washed out by high tides and storms that cut off access to and from Hatteras Island jeopardizes residents, tourists, local businesses, and coastal wildlife.

An Unreliable Plan

In violation of law, the Federal Highway Administration and N.C. Department of Transportation’s planned replacement fails to include how they will maintain Highway 12 through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, an exposed oceanfront stretch of road that is expected to become increasingly eroded over coming years. The illegal plan is unsafe and unreliable for residents, travelers and businesses with undisclosed costs and impacts, not only to taxpayers, but also to those residents, businesses and coastal environment. By ignoring the inherent flaw in their plan, the agencies trap the state and its residents into hidden costs and environmental damage of continually trying to maintain the road and proposed additional bridges through the refuge against the persistent power of the ocean. The costs will likely be much higher, and incurred much sooner, than estimated.

Reliable, Safe Alternatives

SELC and other conservation groups are pushing the state to consider safer bridge replacement alternatives. A longer bridge that bypasses the unstable part of the island and the wildlife refuge and travels instead through the Pamlico Sound to the village of Rodanthe would be safer and more reliable for visitors and residents. A high-speed, shallow draft ferry system is another alternative that has not been seriously studied. Such alternatives would be more reliable and safer given the ocean exposure, flooding and erosion of NC 12 while preserving the refuge.

Wildlife at Risk

Ongoing construction work inherent in the current plan would pose a constant threat to the natural island, migratory waterbirds and nesting sea turtles as well as their young.

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