The Herbert C. Bonner Bridge is a lifeline along the Outer Banks. It provides the only highway connection for thousands of Hatteras Island residents to work, schools and healthcare on the mainland. As many as 13,000 vehicles cross over the bridge during peak travel days in the summer, an important part of North Carolina's $19.4 billion a year tourism industry. With landmarks like the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, one quarter of the county's overall economic impact comes from Hatteras Island tourism alone.
"It would be catastrophic if something happened to the Bonner Bridge," said Hatteras Island resident and business owner Beth Midgett. "The bridge is a necessary part of our lives and our livelihood, and all of our electrical and communications lines run underneath it. Losing this critical connection would be a devastating blow to our community and a big hit to the state's tourism industry."
The crucial lifeline is in trouble. After 50 years of weathering many storms, enduring harsh current and sustaining numerous boat crashes, engineers say the bridge needs to be replaced. That necessary replacement project is on hold because of lawsuits, so the North Carolina Department of Transportation is pressing forward with costly repair work to keep the barrier island connected.
The department has already spent nearly $56 million on repairs, maintenance and special inspections since 1990 to fortify the bridge. Another $2 million in required repair work is scheduled to begin this fall.
"We simply can't sustain this model much longer," said NCDOT Chief Deputy Secretary of Operations Jim Trogdon. "The longer we wait, the more taxpayer money is spent patching a bridge that must be replaced, and the risk becomes greater that we could have to close the Bonner Bridge before the new one is ready."
The Bridge's History
NCDOT built the $4.1 million bridge in 1963 to extend N.C. 12 over the Oregon Inlet, providing better access and service for residents and visitors of Hatteras Island. At that time, the existing ferry route could no longer keep up with the growing traffic.
NCDOT first began the process of investing in a new bridge in 1989. However, a number of roadblocks over the years delayed construction. The most recent are two lawsuits filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center (one in July 2011 and another in August 2013) on behalf of the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, in an attempt to delay or stop the bridge replacement on environmental grounds. Until those lawsuits are resolved, NCDOT cannot move forward with the project.
"As an Outer Banks resident and an engineer, I always want to do what's best for our community," said NCDOT Resident Engineer Pablo Hernandez, who is based in Manteo and oversees highway and bridge projects in the area. "Every project we do goes through careful planning and permitting to ensure it's done safely, efficiently and with minimal environmental impact."
Keeping the Current Bridge Safe for Travel
The harsh salt air has taken a toll on the bridge's steel and concrete, and the turbulent waters of the Oregon Inlet are constantly shifting the sand on the ocean floor, which causes problems around the piers that support the bridge.
"The concrete is essentially rotting from the inside out as salt has found its way to the internal reinforcing st