DARE COUNTY, NC -- Dare County officials and a state lawmaker used a press conference to go over Tuesday's decision to close the Bonner Bridge to Hatteras Island as an opportunity to lash out against opponents of a project to replace the bridge, primarily the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). That group has filed numerous lawsuits attempting to block construction of a replacement bridge....a project 20 years in the making.
Fighting back tears, North Carolina State Senator Bill Cook called opponents of the new bridge "overly zealous environmental nut jobs". Cook joined other Dare County officials in criticizing the SELC lawsuits against a new bridge.The state DOT awarded a $215.8 million contract to build a replacement bridge in July 2011. Work was supposed to begin earlier this year. However, that project has been blocked by the SELC lawsuit for now.
"It's actually NCDOT's inability to secure all the necessary permits for its faulty plan to build the new bridge in the same place, and not the lawsuit, that's causing the delays in construction," said Julie Youngman, an attorney with Southern Environmental Law Center.
Youngman told 13News Now the group continues to support a plan that would move the crossing from its current location across Oregon Inlet. That option was proposed years ago, but would cost a huge amount more when compared to the project that would keep the bridge in a corridor parallel to the Bonner Bridge.
"The ocean's gonna continue to scour the new bridges. They're going to end up in the ocean as DOT has admitted, and they're going to strand Hatteras Island residents," Youngman said. "A way around the problems of these continuous repairs to the existing bridge and shutdown of the road south of the bridge would be for DOT to build a more reliable and safer bridge through the Pamlico Sound that would bypass the unstable part of the island."
Earlier in the press conference, North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata briefed reporters and thousands of concerned Hatteras Island residents on new details leading up to his sudden decision to close the Bonner Bridge on Tuesday afternoon.
"I've received questions on why where was no warning," Tata said. "I made this decision. I made the decision 100 percent based on safety."
Tata said his decision was made in consultation with NCDOT engineers and Governor Pat McCrory.
According to Tata, new safety concerns arose late last week after engineers found a large amount of sand had washed away from nine of ten piers holding a support section on the southern end of the bridge. That inspection led to constant monitoring of the piers over the weekend.
The decision to close the bridge was made after divers confirmed that a dangerously unsafe amount of sad had been washed away. Tata explained that piers need to be buried in at least twenty feet of sand to be safe. Nine of ten piers holding up the problem support were below twenty feed. The worst pier was submerged in just thirteen feet of sand.
"We've said this bridge stands on borrowed time. This is just another indication of that," Tata said at the press conference Wednesday.
Governor Pat McCrory is expected to declare a state of emergency for the bridge late Wednesday afternoon, which Tata said will clear the way for expedited permits needed to make the necessary repairs and allow for additional money and resources to be directed to the bridge.
Tata declined to speculate on how soon the bridge would be able to re-open. He said it would be impossible to have a timeline until contractors got on scene and began work.
The department has awarded a $1.6 million contract to Carolina Bridge Company Inc. of Orangeburg, S.C. for emergency repairs on the bridge. NCDOT and the contractor are working together to develop a timeframe for the repairs to be complete.
As part of this emergency repair project, crews will use sandbags and four-foot tall A-Jacks to provide support to the bridge pilings. A-jacks locked together will be placed in a perimeter around the support structure of the bridge. Crews will then fill the perimeter with sandbags to provide support to the pilings. An additional two layers of A-jacks and sandbags will then be placed on top of the base layer for a total of 10-12 feet of protection. This will allow sand to collect over the sandbags and A-Jacks, providing additional support to the structure.