Burning bridges at Outer Banks

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 6, 2013

RALEIGH — His comments may have been over the top, but state Transportation Secretary Tony Tata has this much right: A lawsuit that has stopped a replacement span for the Bonner Bridge callously disregards the economic welfare of Outer Banks residents.
The state Department of Transportation was forced to close the bridge Tuesday after workers discovered that erosion had undermined bridge pilings.
Tata heaped blame on the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents environmental groups that have challenged a 2011 contract to build a 2.8 mile replacement adjacent to the existing bridge.
“These ivory tower elitists file these lawsuits from their air-conditioned offices in Chapel Hill. And they do so with their lattes and their contempt, and chuckle while the good people of the Outer Banks are fighting hard to scratch out a living here based on tourism and based on access,” Tata said.
The lawyers at the SELC probably aren’t chuckling, even if they enjoy a good latte from time to time.
In response, one of them, Julie Youngman, noted that DOT officials a decade ago signed off on a 17-mile bridge alternative bypassing Pea Island National Wildlife Refugee by bringing traffic over Pamlico Sound, a favored route of the environmental groups.
Youngman said the current situation could have been avoided had Dare County officials not stopped the project back then.
And maybe Lieutenant Maynard never would have found Blackbeard if he had anchored on the other side of Ocracoke Island.
Youngman’s speculative take on history avoids a few critical details, among them that then-Gov. Mike Easley and then-Senate leader Marc Basnight are the people who actually put the brakes on the 17-mile bridge plan.
They did so because the people there didn’t want it and because the price tag, as much as $1.4 billion, created huge questions regarding its financing.
As for those people, one reason that they never wanted the 17-mile span is because it would have made Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge virtually inaccessible to anyone who didn’t own a boat.
That, and getting N.C. 12 out of the refuge, appears to be the aim of the SELC and their environmentalist clients, and one that they are willing to make a pretty significant tradeoff to get.
What they don’t talk much about is the environmental footprint of a 17-mile span through a sound that serves as a nursery area for fish and turtles, and the dredging that would be required to put it there.
It’s that tradeoff that makes them pretty vulnerable to Tata’s charge of being elitists who, in this case, see the environment as something separate from the people who live in it, something to be appreciated only if it is roped off, like a museum exhibit, from those despoilers who walk on two feet.
They would be wise to wake up to that vulnerability and ask themselves how much the animosity created along the Outer Banks is costing them elsewhere.
Scott Mooneyham is a columnist covering state government issues for Capitol Press Association.