But the possibility of litigation looms
A hotly debated project for decades and one that hit its share of road bumps came one step closer to reality last week after the Mid-Currituck Bridge project received a green light from the Federal Highway Authority (FHWA). But the approval also served as a rallying cry for opposition groups that are expected to fight the project.
The 4.7-mile span over Currituck Sound and 1.5-mile stretch crossing Maple Swamp would connect Aydlett on the mainland with Corolla. With an estimated price tag of $440 million, the two-lane toll bridge would create a second access to the northern Outer Banks in addition to the Wright Memorial Bridge.
Bridge proponents have argued that a mid-county bridge would ease traffic woes along the corridor to the northern beaches of Duck and Corolla, as well as improve traffic flow during evacuations. Opposition groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), however, have asserted that the overall environmental impact, coupled with an anticipated development boom due to such a bridge, would be harmful.
SELC represents the Concerned Citizens and Visitors Opposed to the Mid-Currituck Bridge, as well as the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.
In an interview with the Sentinel, SELC Attorney Kym Hunter said that the group is reviewing the documents, adding that the center’s main concern is what she characterized as a lack of transparency on the part of NCDOT and the failure to include the public in the process.
When asked if the center was considering a lawsuit, she responded: “Based on what we have seen so far, it’s certainly likely and we’ve been very clear about that during this whole process.”
SELC in the past has pushed for alternatives to the bridge. In 2017, SELC’s Hunter made the rounds to several town council and commissioners’ meetings on the Outer Banks, promoting a plan devised by Transportation Planning Consultant Walter Kulash. The alternative included a “flyover,” or overpass, at the U.S. 158 and N.C. 12 intersection, as well as what is called a “superstreet” on portions of U.S. 158.
SELC was embroiled in a legal battle with NCDOT for years over the proposed Herbert C. Bonner Bridge replacement, essentially stalling the project until the two entities reached an agreement in 2015. At the time, SELC agreed to drop legal challenges regarding the replacement of that bridge in exchange for NCDOT choosing the Jug Handle Bridge option just north of Rodanthe over other more invasive and costly alternatives.
Still, state officials celebrated the FHWA approval after what they described as decades of project planning and environmental impact studies. “This is a significant milestone,” NC Turnpike Authority Chief Engineer Rodger Rochelle told the Sentinel when speaking of the FHWA’s Record of Decision issued last week. “It nails down the alignment of where the bridge is going to be and certain details of the project.”
Rochelle said NCDOT could now move forward with applying for construction permits and securing right-of-way acquisitions. As for construction, Rochelle said, “it could begin possibly in very late 2020, but that is optimistic.” Bridge construction is estimated to take between three and a half and four years.
The project, he noted, would be funded through a combination of U.S. Department of Transportation loans, state transportation monies and toll revenue bonds to be paid back through bridge toll fees that would be established following future traffic revenue studies. NCDOT has estimated that, with toll revenues, the estimated cost to the department would be $173 million.
NCDOT’s Mid-Currituck Bridge project will also include improvements to N.C. 12 and minor enhancements to the Wright Memorial Bridge. The need for the Mid-Currituck Bridge, state transportation officials say, was first identified in 1975.