Secretary blames environmentalists for Bonner Bridge closure
MANTEO — Efforts to block construction of a replacement for the Bonner Bridge are to blame for the current problems that led officials to close it to traffic, N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said Wednesday.
Tata told a news conference that blame for the delay in replacing the bridge lies with environmental groups who filed a lawsuit. He described them as "ivory tower elitists" who have no connection to the people of Hatteras Island.
"It's all about winning for them," Tata said.
In September, a federal judge approved plans for a parallel span to replace the 50-year-old bridge, rejecting the objections of environmentalists who were pushing for a 17-mile bridge over the Pamlico Sound with an estimated price tag of $1.1 billion.
The Southern Environmental Law Center is appealing the judge's decision. It has argued that building a parallel bridge to connect to N.C. Highway 12 on Hatteras Island ignores washouts and breaches on the coastal road. Tata has said the SELC's appeal hurts the state's ability to keep the bridge open.
"Secretary Tata is trying to distract the people of Hatteras Island and of North Carolina from the critical issue - that NCDOT has failed to provide a long-term, reliable route to Rodanthe that will not be repeatedly washed out and shut down for decades to come," said SELC senior attorney Julie Youngman.
DOT has asked Gov. Pat McCrory to sign an emergency declaration that would allow a dredge to be brought in as well as make repairs to the bridge. The governor was traveling outside the state Wednesday.
The department announced Wednesday that it has awarded a $1.6 million contract to Carolina Bridge Company Inc. of Orangeburg, S.C. for emergency repairs to the bridge. NCDOT and the contractor are working together to develop a timeframe for the repairs to be complete.
The DOT declared last week that the inlet had scoured out sand around the base of supports at the southern end of the bridge, near Hatteras Island.
Subsequent sonar tests and divers found there was more sand gone in that section of the bridge than previously thought, a DOT spokesman said. Reopening the bridge will require fortifying the bridge's support columns and bringing in additional sand, according to the spokesman.
The Bonner Bridge is the only road access for vehicles between Hatteras Island and the mainland. DOT began operating an emergency ferry route between Stumpy Point and Rodanthe with limited service Tuesday night.
The bridge was designed to last 30 years when built in 1963. DOT began the process of trying to replace the Bonner Bridge in 1989 and awarded a contract of almost $216 million in 2011 for construction that was set to begin earlier this year.