Local officials express optimism project will proceed
Local leaders say that the April 23 lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) challenging the recent approval of the Mid-Currituck Bridge was not unexpected. And they stand by their longstanding support for the nearly seven-mile span that would connect Corolla with the Currituck mainland — expressing optimism that it will eventually be built.
Representing the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and the No Mid-Currituck Bridge citizens’ group, the SELC filed the litigation against the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), challenging their approval of the project. The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for Eastern North Carolina.
The move comes about a month after the FHWA issued a Record of Decision on the roughly $500 million project, which essentially gives NCDOT a green light to move forward with the permitting process and other key aspects of planning.
In a press release issued last week, SELC attorney Kym Hunter called the project a “wasteful, destructive bridge. It’s hard to square the governor’s executive order on climate change with this bridge that will encourage more development in a part of North Carolina vulnerable to rising sea levels and coastal flooding.”
“I’m not surprised at all,” Southern Shores Mayor Tom Bennett said of the lawsuit, adding that he and the Southern Shores Town Council have been longtime proponents of the project. “They are going to fight it for as long as they can fight it, just like they did the Bonner Bridge,” he noted, referring to the SELC’s years battling NCDOT in court over the proposed Bonner Bridge replacement.
In the Bonner Bridge case, the two entities finally reached an agreement in 2015, when SELC agreed to drop legal challenges to the bridge replacement in exchange for NCDOT agreeing to construct a jug handle bridge just north of Rodanthe rather than more invasive and costly options.
Discussing the suit filed against the Mid-Currituck Bridge project, Currituck County Executive Director of Economic Development Larry Lombardo observed that, “Once it finally got funded and got a project number, SELC was involved.” But “if people look at the facts, there’s no reason this bridge shouldn’t be built.”
Proponents of the bridge have long argued that it would ease traffic woes along the corridor to the northern beaches of the Outer Banks, as well as improve traffic flow during evacuations.
Opposition groups assert that the overall environmental impact, along with increased development resulting from the bridge, would be detrimental to the region. In the lawsuit, the SELC also contends NCDOT illegally shut the public out of the decision-making process, providing no opportunity for public input since 2012.
In 2017, SELC representatives made the rounds to several Dare County town council and commissioners’ meetings to push for alternatives to the bridge. One possibility included an overpass or “flyover” at the U.S. 158 and N.C. 12 intersection.
Duck Mayor Don Kingston echoed the other local officials, saying that town leaders “anticipated” the SELC lawsuit. “We think that the DOT is in a good position to take [SELC] on in the courts. We know the alternatives [SELC has proposed], but that’s not my place to debate. DOT will certainly do that.”
In the end, Kingston said he expects to see the construction of the 4.7-mile bridge stretching over the Currituck Sound and the 1.5-mile span crossing Maple Swamp to connect Corolla with the mainland and provide a second access to the northern beach towns. “I’m optimistic we will see a bridge,” he said. “I believe it’s needed for public safety, hurricane evacuation and traffic congestion.”
If built, Currituck County’s Lombardo said the bridge would more likely bring growth to the mainland side of the bridge, where a toll plaza would be constructed, rather than in Corolla. And he added that he’d “love to see a brand name hotel on the mainland.”
For her part, co-founder of the No Mid-Currituck Bridge group Jen Symonds said in a statement that the bridge would only be used during the summer months. “Five hundred million is just too much to spend on vacation traffic when there are so many other needed transportation projects in coastal North Carolina, and so many alternative solutions to deal with the traffic,” the statement said.
According to the NCDOT website, an environmental impact study for the project was completed in 2012. Bridge construction is estimated to begin in the spring of 2021 and take several years to complete. Funding would come from a combination of toll revenue bonds, a Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan, state funds and Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle bonds. A toll rate has not yet been established.