The state Department of Transportation announced this afternoon that it had reached an agreement with environmental groups allowing the agency to replace the aging Herbert C. Bonner Bridge over the Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks with a new parallel bridge. Under the agreement, NCDOT will also consider options that would move vulnerable portions of N.C. Highway 12 out of the southern half of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and into Pamlico Sound.
“We appreciate the efforts of all parties to agree on a viable solution that best serves the people and interests of North Carolina,” NCDOT Secretary Tony Tata said in a statement. “The settlement agreement will allow NCDOT to provide a safe and reliable bridge for thousands of residents who rely on this lifeline to get to work, school, and healthcare and for millions of visitors who travel to the Outer Banks every year.”
“We are pleased that NCDOT and its partner agencies will consider additional options for N.C. 12 that will provide safe, reliable transportation by avoiding the areas where erosion and washouts shut down the road in its current location. This is a win-win for the Refuge and everyone who relies on N.C. 12,” Julie Youngman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who represented the conservation groups added.
Here’s more from the DOT:
Under the settlement agreement, after certain tasks are complete including ceasing work on a 2.4-mile bridge within the Refuge, the conservation groups will dismiss both federal and State Bonner Bridge-related lawsuits. NCDOT will move forward with construction of a new bridge parallel to the existing Bonner Bridge and will study options for Pamlico Sound structures to address the Mirlo Beach area and the Pea Island inlet created by Hurricane Irene. NCDOT will complete this entire process collaboratively with the Merger Team, composed of state and federal resource and regulatory agencies. During the study period, NCDOT will implement interim measures on Pea Island to provide safe and reliable transportation through this area. In September 2014, NCDOT suspended construction on a permanent Pea Island Bridge as part of the settlement process.
The groups and the DOT had long been battling in court over the fate of the bridge. Most recently the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond sent the lawsuit back to the district court for further review, finding that that lower court had failed to consider requirements relating to the protection of wildlife refuge land — here, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on Hatteras Island, through which the battered NC-12 runs – when determining if the project complied federal law.
Read the full settlement agreement here.