Both sides claim victory, but Bonner replacement still stalled

By on August 6, 2014

inletbonner

The bridge is 50 years old, well past its lifespan. (Voice file)

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of both sides in a lawsuit filed by environmentalists that has put the replacement of the Bonner Bridge on hold.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said that highway planners had complied with federal policy on environmental review of the project, affirming much of a ruling last year by a U.S. District Court judge.

But the appeals panel ordered the judge to take a closer look at her ruling that the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration were exempt from certain regulations that would apply to construction in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

The appeals panel said it was not convinced that plans for a public road — N.C. 12 — and the establishment of the refuge in 1938 were “concurrent,” which was the basis of the exemption.

If the judge finds that the exemption was in error, she can still decide that highway planners have satisfied federal regulations with studies they have already done on alternatives for N.C. 12 south of the span. They must show that plans for N.C. 12 improvements are essential and would do the least harm to the refuge.

The Bonner Bridge and N.C. 12 are the only route to communities south of Oregon Inlet. The road, however frequently washes out and has been shut down after storms in recent years, most notably Hurricanes Sandy and Irene.

Environmental groups argue that a 17-mile bridge over the Pamlico Sound bypassing the refuge is the best alternative.

While both the NCDOT and Southern Environmental Law Center claimed victory following the appeals court ruling, the bridge project is still alive but has not moved any closer to starting.

“The citizens and visitors of North Carolina appreciate the Fourth Circuit’s thorough opinion that affirms the district court’s summary judgment upholding NCDOT’s NEPA permit,” Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said in a statement.

“As we review and determine the best way to proceed on other elements of the ruling, which may further delay the project, we are encouraged that our state is one step closer to replacing the Bonner Bridge.”

Also to be resolved is a separate challenge by the SELC of a Coastal Area Management Act permit.

The SELC has argued that the bridge and improvements to N.C. 12 cannot be addressed separately. Plans now call for the bridge to be built first with N.C. 12 south of the span to be improved later under five alternatives.

But damage near Rodanthe has forced the state to move forward with plans to build a bridge over the “hot spot” prone to over-wash and breaches at Mirlo Beach just north of the community.

In a statement Wednesday, the SELC said the ruling bolstered the position of the environmental groups.

“As the court made clear in its decision,” the statement said, “the Bonner Bridge alone ‘is essentially worthless without a means of conveying motorists from its southern terminus to the Village of Rodanthe, which is the northernmost point where the residents, businesses, and services on Hatteras Island are located.’

“The court went on to hold that the agencies must ‘select the alternative’ for that route ‘that causes the least overall harm to the Refuge.’ ”

Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, focused on the appeals court’s opinion that the bridge project complied with the National Environmental Policy Act.

“This 50-year-old bridge needs to be replaced now,” Cook said in a statement. “I hope the Southern Environmental Law Center will now stop their obstructionist behavior and allow the people of the Outer Banks to have a safe and reliable bridge.”

Stan White, Cook’s opponent in the November election and his predecessor in the Senate, said the ruling by the three-judge panel prevents the NCDOT from building the bridge unless there is proof it will not cause harm to the refuge.

“This is an unfortunate decision,” White said in a statement. “The results will be further unnecessary delays in construction and increased jeopardy to public safety.”


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