Toiling away on a state road-construction project, Beth Smyre and her team uncovered some long-buried paperwork that could make a winning lottery ticket look penny ante. Because of it, taxpayers might have to pay about half the estimated $1.1 billion they otherwise would have to spend on a new route for storm-battered N.C. 12.
Government officials have been debating for 18 years about how to replace the crumbling Herbert C. Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet and preserve highway access for most of the more than 5 million Outer Banks visitors a year. Last year, federal administrators told Smyre, the state project engineer, to double-check rights of way.
Digging through archives at UNC Chapel Hill, Smyre’s team found deeds from the ’50s that gave road builders more leeway in routing N.C. 12 through the sensitive Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Previously, they thought they were restricted to a 100-foot corridor near the shoreline, the present route. But with rising seas and erosion, the shore is getting closer to the highway each year. Sand frequently washes and drifts over it, blocking access.
The newly discovered deeds, however, will allow planners to move the highway farther from the beach and closer to Pamlico Sound. An earlier plan anticipated the ocean increasingly breaching the narrow island, forcing phased construction of a series of causeways over new inlets. But as sea level rose, those causeways would have increasingly been exposed to open ocean. One option called for building a 17.5-mile bridge around the Pea Island refuge through the sound. Like the causeway option, that would have cost more than $1 billion — possibly $1.5 billion.
Now planners can contemplate a route without the causeways, except for a three-mile bridge over the sound just north of Rodanthe, where the island is particularly narrow and vulnerable to erosion. “Obviously, we could have huge cost savings,” Smyre says, though she warns that snags could still develop. “The state will have to work with a lot of other groups and agencies to make sure this is the option we really want to go with.”
If so, she says, contracts could be let in February 2010. Work would take three years or more, but nature will win eventually. Highway department maps show much of the island under water by 2050.