By Lucy Papachristou | Outer Banks Voice on January 11, 2020
About 160 people showed up at the Duck Woods County Club on Jan. 9 to hear the latest about the long-awaited Mid-Currituck Bridge project from state officials. The presentation from Rodger Rochelle, Chief Engineer, Innovation Delivery at the N.C Turnpike Authority and Project Manager Jennifer Harris, was sponsored by the Southern Shores Civic Association & Boat Club.
For many Outer Banks residents, particularly those in Southern Shores and Duck, the project — which would connect mainland Aydlett to Corolla on the Outer Banks — is seen as a potential game changer that could significantly alleviate the severe summer congestion that backs up traffic and sends motorists cutting through residential neighborhoods.
But the project is also the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). And Rochelle began the Jan. 9 meeting with a caveat, saying he was “unable to give you a definitive timeline [for bridge construction] today.”
The project will include a 4.7-mile long bridge over the Currituck Sound and a 1.5-mile long span across Maple Swamp as part of the mainland approach road. The proposal also includes improvements to N.C. 12 and minor enhancements to the Wright Memorial Bridge, aiding in hurricane evacuation. The two-lane bridge will have one-foot travel lanes, six-foot shoulders, and will include a bicycle-safe route.
Rochelle priced the bridge project at $531 million, based on a calculation of hundreds of different cost elements and risk assessments. That number reflects a 70% certainty that the overall cost of the project will come in under that figure.
The span over the Currituck Sound will include a toll plaza (including E-ZPass) east of the interchange on the mainland. Rochelle said the passenger car toll may cost nearly $30. Several attendees voiced concerns that such a high charge may act as a deterrent to visitors, especially given that the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel toll, just north of Norfolk, VA, clocks in at $14 off-peak and $18 during peak times.
Rochelle said it had been suggested — not by the N.C. Turnpike Authority, he added — that visitors without out-of-state license plates should pay a higher toll, which he called “a type of discrimination.”
In a statement related to its lawsuit filed last spring, the SELC said the bridge project “would cause significant damage to the Currituck Sound, and its pricey tolls, necessary to cover its high costs — by some estimates up to $50 during peak summer months— render the project only usable by wealthy tourists during their visits a few months each year during the summer season.”
Local residents who have seen summer tourism in the Outer Banks explode over the past few decades voiced fears that two lanes would not be sufficient to alleviate future traffic congestion.
But Rochelle the audience that “in twenty-five years, we don’t anticipate having a traffic problem on the bridge itself.” Harris added that NCDOT’s traffic forecast for 2040 projects there will be 18,000 cars per day using the bridge, which NCDOT has calculated a two-lane bridge can handle.
Harris also highlighted improved hurricane evacuation times as one of the new bridge’s greatest assets. The NCDOT calculated the total time needed to clear an entire area of all residents during a hurricane: 37.2 hours without the Mid-Currituck Bridge, and 32.3 hours with the bridge.
Rochelle and Harris waited until near the end of their talk to address the proverbial elephant in the room — the lawsuit.
An hour into the presentation, Rochelle acknowledged that, “Yes, there is a complaint lodged in the courts against our NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] document. However, there are things we still can do to advance the project, and we are doing everything we can despite the legal challenges.”
Next steps going forward include working on applications for construction permits, working on utility coordination, and completing a plan of finance.