August 24, 2008

New Hiccup for Bonner Bridge


By Catherine Kozak

The Virginian-Pilot

Just as the long-awaited final environmental impact statement is about to be released, another glitch may have developed in the planning process to replace the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge .

If the state wants to keep the terminal groin - or jetty - built in 1989 to protect the bridge, it's going to have to request a new or amended permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That raises the question of whether it will require an environmental assessment, which could add months to the already prolonged process .

Officials with the Federal Highway Administration, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the wildlife service met on Friday to discuss what needs to be done if the DOT asks for a new permit.

"I guess at this point, we're trying to determine the best course of action to move it forward," Jerry Jennings, DOT acting division engineer, said after the more than three-hour meeting.

"I think there's certainly a better understanding as to what's needed and what the process would be to allow the groin to remain."

Opened in 1963, the Bonner Bridge is in poor condition and was due to be replaced years ago. Although planning began in 1990, the process has been plagued by environmental challenges and heated debate over which design to choose.

Finally, last year the DOT announced it would build a "phased approach" that involved construction of a short bridge parallel to the existing one and a combination of small bridges and beach nourishment done later as needed on the highway to Rodanthe south of the bridge.

The draft environmental impact statement for that project assumes that the enormous rock wall along the shore on the south side of Oregon Inlet will remain.

When the wildlife service approved the jetty permit nearly 20 years ago, the structure's purpose was to prevent the southward migration of the northern end of Pea Island, protecting the bridge from dangerous erosion. If the existing bridge is no longer there, the permit states that the groin must be removed.

Mike Bryant, refuge manager for Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, said after the meeting that he was concerned about the impact the jetty would have on the refuge over the 50-year life of the bridge. He suggested that a small panel of scientists review existing data and make recommendations for permit conditions.

"Basically, we did agree, just like in 1989, that we need a panel of independent engineers and scientists," Bryant said. "Back then, it only took a couple of months to get an answer."

Although sand has accumulated behind the groin to protect the bridge, conditions of the original permit dictate that six miles of beach south of the jetty be monitored and surveyed regularly. If a certain threshold of erosion is detected, Bryant said, then the DOT must restore the sand with beach nourishment. That so far has never been necessary, he said.

But Bryant said that the 20 years of data mined from the monitoring could be valuable to the new science panel, which has not yet been selected.

No request for a permit has been made by transportation officials, Bryant said.

"It's really not an issue whether they get a permit," he said. "It is an issue of what are going to be the conditions of the permit."

The cost of the bridge project is estimated at $1.1 billion to $1.4 billion, including construction and maintenance through 2060. Construction is expected to start in spring 2009 and be done in 2014.

Once the final environmental review is completed, there will be a 30-day public comment period.

"It's in Federal Highway's hands," said Rob Hanson, DOT eastern project development engineer. "As soon as they give the green light, we will be releasing it."

For more information on the Bonner Bridge project, see

Catherine Kozak, (252) 441-1711,

[email protected]

Originally published by BY CATHERINE KOZAK.

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