RALEIGH, North Carolina — North Carolina's plans to replace the only bridge to much of the Outer Banks ignores the cost and environmental impact of keeping open a barrier island highway frequently cut off by storms and sand, environmentalists said Tuesday.
Two environmental groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit with an appeals court. Hours later, North Carolina's top two state lawmakers blasted the group, saying the group was imperiling the livelihoods of about 5,000 Hatteras Island residents now without road access.
Officials were forced to suddenly close the 50-year-old Bonner Bridge last week after inspections discovered sand washed away from support columns. That made the span too risky for traffic. Hatteras Island is accessible for vehicles only by ferry until the bridge is reopened.
Litigation has held up construction of a replacement to the bridge. A federal district judge rejected the environmentalists' arguments in September, allowing the state to go ahead with the 2.5-mile bridge estimated to cost almost $216 million.
"While the lawyers at the Southern Environmental Law Center claim 'concern and sympathy' for the people of the Outer Banks, their actions speak far louder than words," state Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said in a statement. "These out-of-touch activists are blocking construction of the new Bonner Bridge as a fundraising tactic."
A Berger spokeswoman said the group asks for donations on its website on a page explaining its position on the Bonner Bridge.
The regional law center's North Carolina director said the lawmakers' statement "doesn't merit a response." Derb Carter Jr. said the legislators chose not to make replacing Bonner Bridge and work on N.C. Highway 12 a priority when determining state transportation spending.
The state Department of Transportation decided a decade ago to build a 17-mile bridge that avoids segments of Highway 12 through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The law center favors this span.
But after opposition from local officials, the DOT is pushing ahead with building a new span replicating the existing 2.5-mile bridge.
DOT puts costs of the longer bridge at more than $1 billion. The law center said in its appeal Monday to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, that DOT has wildly inflated the price tag. The DOT also leaves out the costs of moving or maintaining about 12 miles of N.C. 12 through the wildlife refuge. The highway has been sliced apart by new inlets twice in less than three years.
Smaller storms and even high tides also frequently cut off access to Bonner Bridge by making the road impassable for hours to weeks, the lawsuit said.
DOT has known since a 1991 report that three segments of the highway through the refuge were susceptible to new inlets, the lawsuit said.
North Carolina transportation officials "decided to build a bridge that will be useless without an access road and additional bridges are being maintained and built through an eroding, unstable section of Hatteras Island and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Yet they elected not to identify, disclose, or evaluate a plan for that access route," the lawsuit said.
That violates federal environmental laws, which require that major construction projects include a full evaluation of costs and benefits before taxpayer dollars are sunk into the deal, the lawsuit said.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio