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The Outer Banks’ bridge battle

RALEIGH — The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1937 along the northern part of Hatteras Island to protect shore birds and the many species of migratory waterfowl that use the North Carolina Outer Banks as a stopover.

The 5,800-acre refuge was also created for another purpose, clearly stated on its website: “provide opportunities for public enjoyment of wildlife and wildlands resources. Public use programs focus on interpretation, environmental education, wildlife observation, wildlife photography and fishing.”

A lawsuit recently filed by environmental groups over the construction of a bridge to replace the decaying Bonner Bridge ignores that critical objective.

The lawsuit argues for a 17-mile bridge that would bypass the Pea Island refuge by taking the structure through the adjoining sound and bringing traffic back onto Hatteras Island just north of Rodanthe.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation plans to build a replacement bridge that runs parallel to the current 2.7-mile bridge that crosses Oregon Inlet.

The current Bonner Bridge is 49 years old and has been in poor shape for more than a decade. The structure is critical to the Outer Banks’ economy and connects the northern portions of the barrier islands with 60-mile long Hatteras Island.

The existing plans for a shorter replacement bridge make sense for a couple of reasons: It’s cheaper than the 17-mile bridge envisioned by the environmentalist opponents, and it can be built quicker, meaning that safety concerns regarding the current bridge will be alleviated earlier.

The shorter replacement bridge is expected to cost $300 million, while the 17-mile alternative carries a projected price tag of $1 billion.

Sure, the cost of maintaining the beach road on the ever-shifting sands won’t be cheap, but you can buy a lot of asphalt for $700 million.

The groups that filed the lawsuit — the National Wildlife Refuge Association and Defenders of Wildlife, who are represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center — say that maintenance of the road, N.C. 12, has and will hurt the natural area.

But what of the construction of an additional 14 miles of bridge pilings pounded into the floor of the sound? Does that cause no environmental damage?

More importantly, a 17-mile bridge will greatly diminish the presence of people from the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and the northern 14 miles of Hatteras Island.

With no state maintenance, the waves and wind will eventually do their work on the strip of N.C. 12 that is there now. Access to the northern part of the wildlife refuge and island will be primarily by boat.

Maybe that’s the purpose of the lawsuit. If so, maybe another lawsuit is in order.

This one can force the U.S. Department of the Interior to realign the objectives of the wild areas under its supervision to say that only really smart people who really appreciate nature and are willing to spend substantial sums of money to see it shall be afforded opportunities to do so.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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