Getting Here From There

Jenny Scarborough

Highway 12 is currently passable, most of the time.

Residents of Hatteras and Ocracoke still want Highway 12 open sooner rather than later. The seasonal tourist economy on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands is almost entirely dependent on traffic arriving on Highway 12.

"Frustrations with the road being closed are very real right now," said Drew Joyner of the NC Department of Transportation. Joyner was on the Outer Banks in mid-March to conduct three hearings soliciting public input on plans for the future of Highway 12 and the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet.

Getting Here From There
Click image to see more Route 12 damage from Hurricane Irene, which struck the Outer Banks in August, 2011.

The design for a new Oregon Inlet bridge is complete. A legal challenge brought by the Defenders of Wildlife is expected to be resolved, and construction permits to replace the Bonner Bridge, built in 1963, should be in place by its 50th birthday, in the summer of 2013. The existing bridge will be demolished and removed. The new bridge is designed to last through 2050, and takes into account natural channel migration.

Over 200 residents attended the March 12 meeting in Rodanthe, and almost 100 turned up the next day on Ocracoke. Public comments are welcomed until March 28, and should be directed to

"We heard a lot about not just long term solutions, but right now," said Joyner.

DOT workers continuously remove sand from Highway 12, especially at the "hot spots" north of Rodanthe and on Pea Island between the Oregon Inlet bridge and the temporary bridge that went in after Hurricane Irene opened a new inlet in August, 2011.

It is a Sisyphean task. A group of NC DOT workers who cleared Highway 12 on Ocracoke in February said they have battled over wash along the route for the past 15 years. Unless the road is re-structured, they anticipate spending more nights away from home, maintaining a corridor for islanders.

The ongoing investment in equipment and man power has had greater costs than a continued expense to taxpayers. In November, 2012, DOT worker Michael Brad Stevenson was killed in a workplace accident during a nighttime shift on Hatteras Island. His dump truck struck a disabled vehicle, injuring the other driver. Stevenson was 36, leaving behind a wife and three children.

"We can continue to remove sand, but when we lose a section of roadway like at the new inlet, more permanent solutions are required," said a DOT employee on hand to explain the proposals.

The Bonner Bridge replacement project is the top DOT priority, followed by the Pea Island bridge and then the S-curves at Rodanthe. The preferred alternative is to replace the bridge over the new inlet with a 25 foot tall bridge that can be extended at any time, explained DOT engineer Gary Lovering.

Ongoing maintenance by DOT crews keeps NC 12 open for traffic.
Ongoing maintenance by DOT crews keeps NC 12 open for traffic.

The long-term solution DOT proposes involves building a 2.1 mile long bridge within the existing easement on Pea Island. The bridge will replace the surface road and temporary bridge. The design allows for the migration and expansion of the new inlet, and would bridge the parts of the highway most susceptible to breaches. Highway 12 would remain open during construction.

Working within the existing easement helps the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge with compatibility rules, and should be stable, said Lovering.

DOT rejected three alternative proposals. Keeping Highway 12 in its current location and re-nourishing the beach at four year intervals was deemed unsustainable. Locating the road to the west was rejected because it would require filling the new inlet, and not protect against future breaches. Bridging a new location over the inlet was deemed incompatible with the mission and purpose of the Wildlife Refuge.

The proposed final design will cost $98 million. Approximately 80% of that will come from federal funds, because it is considered an Emergency Relief project. NC taxpayers will pony up the other 20%.

DOT recognizes that the visual impact of the 25 foot high bridge will be "in stark contrast with the natural character of the Refuge." The proposed bridge will also eliminate access to the public boat ramp and parking lot near Pea Island. Both would be removed. Temporary disturbances to nesting birds and turtles are anticipated during the 3 1/2 year construction phase.

Ocracoke resident William Howard expressed some skepticism about DOT plans. The road is only stable until the next storm, he said. "Ocracoke people better get used to Beaufort."

DOT ferry division employees were on the island the same day, to discuss proposed tolls. "Why are we having two separate discussions?" asked Howard. "The ferry is part of the highway. They share a common issue."


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