Outer Banks Transportation System: Hope for the Road Weary

outer banks roadsOnce upon a time, when the number of visitors coming to the Outer Banks was perhaps half of what it is today, the highways and roads of the area were adequate to meet transportation needs. That is no longer the case.

Visitors and locals are still able to move around fairly well, but there is no doubt that traffic has been steadily increasing, and improvements to our highways are needed.

NCDOT has been active in moving projects forward. Like any major undertaking there is considerable planning involved, as well as funding issues. Nonetheless, there are some major projects on the books that, if and when implemented will significantly improve the Outer Banks transportation system.

Pea Island

The replacement span for the aging Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet the is the most visible part a the project to improve the roads between the northern Outer Banks and Hatteras Island. However, the entire project area includes all of Pea Island, which is NC 12 from the south end of the Bonner Bridge to Rodanthe.

One part of the project is already completed, although it will have to be revisited at a later time. The Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge spanning the New Inlet area has a projected 25 year life and is not considered a permanent solution. At a future date, a more permanent solution will be constructed that will either take the road into the sound, possibly linking with the proposed Jug Handle at the S curves, or moving the road to the west and constructing a bridge with a longer projected lifespan.

The most visible component of the Pea Island project is the replacement span for the Bonner Bridge. Soaring above the old bridge, it is an engineering marvel.

Clearly NCDOT and project engineers learned a lot from the Bonner Bridge. The navigation spans are now wider and much higher, and there are 16 of them instead of just one. The pilings that support the bridge are being driven much more deeply into the sediment beneath Oregon Inlet.

There are other improvements as well, and as a consequence, the projected lifespan of the bridge is 100 years.

Construction appears to be on schedule to open the bridge in the fall of this year.

After the bridge is open, the old span will be demolished with much of it being used for artificial reefs off the Outer Banks coast.

The most dynamic—read prone to flooding—area of Pea Island is the S Curves just north of Rodanthe. Beach nourishment has been used as a temporary protection method for the road at that location, but because of the undersea geology, nourishment is not considered a permanent solution.

NCDOT plans call for a jug handle. The road will cross a short area of marsh and wetland, swing out into the sound and form a three mile jug handle shape coming back to the existing NC 12 at the Island Convenience Store in Rodanthe.

According to NCDOT the project is due to get underway this summer with an expected completion date in 2020.

A Highway Divided

There are very few things as terrifying in life as pulling into the center turn lane on the Bypass at the same time a driver from the other side pulls in. Or—which can be even more frightening—the other driver is using the center turn lane as an acceleration lane to merge with traffic.

In concept the center turn lane of the Bypass allows left turning traffic to make their turn without slowing or stopping cars behind them. In reality, it’s a study in terror during peak season when traffic far exceeds the capacity for the concept planners had in mind.

Aware that it is a safety issue, NCDOT has in it’s lates STI (State Improvement Investment) documentation a plan to create barricades along much of the center lane with controlled left hand turns at select intersections.

The project ranks pretty high in the system NCDOT uses to evaluate their priorities, so there is a good possibility that it will move forward. However, do not look for anything to happen right away.

Right of way acquisition is not scheduled to begin until 2015 with construction scheduled for 2027.

Mid Currituck Bridge

Who knows what’s happening with the Mid Currituck Bridge…and we’re not being facetious with that.

The most recent schedule for the $489 million project that will cross the Currituck Sound at Aydlett called for a Record of Decision (ROD) to be released in April of this year. That date has been pushed back to sometime in the summer, although nothing has been specified.

According to the NCDOT a reevaluation of the 2012 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) contributed to the delay. Project managers felt the six years that had passed since the original EIS was issued necessitated reviewing the document.

The ROD is the final step needed to outline the scope of the project, its cost and schedule. Without that document contracts cannot be awarded and the project cannot move forward.

Although NCDOT has indicated that they wish to proceed with the project there are quite a number of loose ends and at this time, there is neither a start date nor a completion date posted.

In conjunction with the Mid Currituck Bridge, NCDOT is planning on removing the turn lane from the Caratoke Highway (US 158) from the bridges interchange to the Wright Memorial Bridge. The road will be a four lane highway with left turns at managed intersections.

Under any circumstances, it seems likely that when the ROD is issued, the project will face legal challenges from a number of environmental groups that contend the bridge will exacerbate congestion, cause environmental harm to the Currituck Outer Banks and that there are less expensive and less intrusive means of alleviating traffic congestion that NCDOT has not explored.

The bridge will be a toll road when completed and will be administered by the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.

What’s Happening with the Mid-Currituck Bridge

mid-currituck bridgeThat the Outer Banks is a wonderful place to visit is a given. A beautiful setting, soft sand, ideal for a family vacation and reasonably priced compared to most tourist destinations, it makes sense that so many people choose to come.

If there is a consistent complaint from our visitors  though, it is getting here in the summer, especially on weekends, has become a time-consuming undertaking. As it stands right now, most of our visitors come from the north and arrive on the Outer Banks via the Wright Brothers Memorial Bridge that exits at Kitty Hawk.

About a mile past the bridge there is an intersection that leads north to Southern Shores, Duck and Corolla or south to the main towns of the Outer Banks or Hatteras Island. The intersection is inadequate to handle the volume of summer traffic and consequently, traffic regularly backs up to the mainland.

To alleviate traffic at the intersection a bridge spanning Currituck Sound has been seen as the best solution for a number of year. First envisioned in 1978 as part of a planning exercise for the UNC School of Government, the Mid-Currituck Bridge has had to fight for its life since it first became part of North Carolina Department of Transportation plans.

Current Status of the Project

The Mid-Currituck Bridge is included in current North Carolina Department of Transportation plans; however, the start date has been moved back. As recently as 2016, the construction schedule had the bridge completed in 2022. Although still on the books, it is difficult to know when the bridge is scheduled to be completed.

There is an extensive permitting process that is involved in moving any project like the Mid-Currituck Bridge forward, and the most daunting task had been completed in January of 2012 when a Final Environmental Impact Statement was issued. The next step would have been issuing a Record of Decision, but a change in the political makeup of the state legislature created a change in how North Carolina Department of Transportation evaluated projects and the Record of Decision was never issued.

Because of the delay, the Environmental Impact Statement will have to be re-evaluated and how extensive the re-evaluation process is may determine the schedule.

When the bridge was re-included as part of the state’s transportation improvement plan in 2015, a new schedule of completion of the project was issued that had a date of 2022. That date was contingent on a Record of Decision being issued in the spring of this year.

That did not happen and the new Record of Decision date is spring of 2018.

It is unclear how much of an effect that will have on the overall schedule. Typically contracts are not let until the Record of Decision is issued; it is possible contracts could be awarded more quickly than usual in which case the delay would be minimal.

At this point the North Carolina Department of Transportation website lists the opening date as to be determined.

Possible Impacts

North Carolina Department of Transportation projections for traffic growth on the Outer Banks point to the necessity of building the bridge. If and when the bridge is finally built, provided the projections are accurate, the impact on traffic will be dramatic.

At this point in time, people living on the southern Currituck mainland repeatedly express frustration with being trapped in their homes on summer weekends. The bridge should remedy that. Additionally traffic that slows to a crawl through Duck and Southern Shores should move mover efficiently.

The Mid-Currituck Bridge, though, enjoys widespread regional support, not just a vote of confidence from Dare and Currituck County officials.

For the counties that makeup Northeastern North Carolina the Mid-Currituck Bridge represents employment opportunities for their residents. Unemployment rates in neighboring counties tend to be higher than the beach communities and with quicker access to Corolla, the belief is jobs would be available.

Employers in the Corolla area would also like to see the bridge completed. Because there are relatively few year round residents in the area, finding employees to fill summer needs has been a consistent problem and like the neighboring county officials, the bridge is seen as a way to relieve employee shortfalls.

If the bridge is built, it’s difficult to predict what the effect on real estate and business will be. The preferred alternative will connect Aydlett with Corolla, landing in the Outer Banks between Timbuck II and the Whalehead Club.

On the Outer Banks side, the impact will probably be minimal; buildout is continuing regardless of what happens with the bridge.

On the Currituck mainland side, it may be a different story.

There is very little commercial development in the area that will be the corridor for the bridge—at this point it’s farmland and swamp. The swamp is Maple Swamp and is protected wetlands, so there will be no building there, but there may be opportunity in the areas that will allow construction.

Will It Be Built?

That is an interesting question.

The short answer is probably but there are some significant hurdles to cross.

There are still question about how the project will be funded. Plans call for a Private Public Partnership, with financing that will be paid for by tolls. The total cost of the project is approximately $500 million, although that may go up if the delays continue.

Questions have been raised asking if the tolls will be adequate to satisfy repayment of the debt and maintain the bridge.

There is almost certainly going to be a lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The Southern Environmental Law Center has been on record as opposing the project for some time. They have raised concerns about environmental damage and continuing buildout of the Currituck Banks. The organization has presented an alternative plan that would include flyovers at the troublesome intersection and other road improvements.

The plan is similar, although not identical to, one of the alternatives rejected by North Carolina Department of Transportation.

If the Southern Environmental Law Center does sue to stop the project, they will do so after the Record of Decision is issued, since the project is not officially on the books until that time.

Mid-Currituck Bridge Update

The Mid-Currituck bridge proposal is back on the table and gaining steam.  Many are enthusiastically hopeful that the bridge will begin construction sooner rather later. Last time I reported, the skeptics were leading the charge about the bridge not being a possibility. Now there is some hope that the long awaited expanse will create a new frontier to Corolla. Here are the facts based on the latest NC-DOT report.

The Mid- Currituck bridge project would create a north crossing of the sound that would bypass lower Currituck, Southern Shores and Duck. This crossing would greatly help alleviate congestion and improve the flow of traffic on Saturday’s in the summer,  and if there were a hurricane evacuation The 7-mile toll bridge would connect Aydlett (Mainland Currituck) to Corolla. The project will cost 440 million. The funding will come from bonds paid back from future toll revenue and a combination of state and federal transportation tax.  At this point they don’t know how much the toll will be.

The project was put on hold in 2013 but has since been approved for inclusion in the 2016-2025 State Transportation Improvement Program. An amendment in this program states that the project should begin in 2017 fiscal year (which starts July 2016). There is a lot of preliminary work that NC-DOT will need to do before construction begins. This will include: developing a new traffic and revenue study, toll financing plan, selecting a builder, preparing final design plans, acquiring right of way, and obtaining environmental agency permits.

What does all this mean for the future of this bridge? Well that really depends on who you ask.  In my opinion with projects this large on the Outer Banks there always will be some hang up’s.  Although I am more optimistic that the bridge will eventually be built. I would much rather air on the side of cautioun based on the time it has taken to approve the Bonner Bridge, which crosses Oregon Inlet. Obtaining environmental permits in the past has been a slow process.

The future does look bright for most residence if the bridge is built. Increased revenues and home prices should follow with easier access to the Northern part of the island. Surely, businesses will see an increase in incomes as more visitors invade the beaches. The environment may be inversely impacted by the increase unless proper laws are put into place to help regulate the already difficult task. Change is an inevitable fact of life and as my father has always told me, “Embrace change son or you will get swallowed up by the past”. The future holds bright for us Outer Bankers if we follow our hearts and do what’s right in life.

mid-currituck bridgeFor more insights about the Outer Banks and surrounding area please feel free to contact Ken or Pete with Best Buy OBX of Outer Banks Blue.

Ken Baittinger
Ken (252) 305-5255
ken@outerbanksblue.com

or

Pete Salitore
Pete (252) 202-4868
pete@outerbanksblue.com

The Mid-Currituck Bridge: Will It Happen?

Anyone who has ever lived or visited the Outer Banks has heard about the Mid-Currituck Bridge. Opinions vary depending on whom you talk with at the time. Some swear that the bridge will be built and still others claim that it is never going to happen.  The truth is actually somewhere in the middle.  Let’s take a second to separate the facts from opinions.

The plan to build a bridge that connects Corolla to the mainland has been around since the 1970’s. The bridge would greatly relieve traffic congestion on NC 12 though Duck and Southern Shores and cut an hour off of trips to Corolla. On January 19, 2012, the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was released by the N.C. Turnpike Authority. It recommended the construction of the bridge as well as limited improvements to existing NC 12 and Us 158.  This project was slated to begin in late 2012. In June 2012 the NCDOT recommended not to fund the project.

This debate has gone back and forth from the very beginning. The opponents have cited costs as being the biggest obstacle with the bridge costing between 500-600 million to be built. There are many opinions that the funding allocated for this bridge should be used for the Oregon Inlet Bridge since many feel the Oregon Inlet Bridge is a hazard for everyone who crosses it. The question of funding has always put a damper in this project.

According to Jeff Hampton , “[As of December 2015,] the mid-Currituck bridge connecting the mainland to Corolla, N.C., is back on track”.  Kip Tabb writes, “With each hurdle that is passed, the Mid-Currituck bridge edges closer to realty”.  The feelings from many are positive that a toll bridge will eventually be constructed.  I can’t help but think that maybe some of these thoughts are more wishful thinking, but I agree and support that the bridge would supply jobs and stimulate our economy.

There are other issues that could impact the bridge being build. I’ve seen more and more closures of our beaches in recent years due to environmental activism. This same group may align itself with another species that is not in trouble to serve it own agendas to control our environment.

The question to whether the bridge will be built or not has many variables that aren’t easily answered.  Funding and environmental impact are its biggest opponent. Still most wish to dream of a time when they didn’t sit in traffic on Saturdays and early check in’s were available at every house. Whether fact or opinion, the hope for the Mid-Currituck Bridge lives on for locals and tourists alike. To build or not to build, that is the question.

mid-currituck bridgeFor more insights about the Outer Banks and surrounding area please feel free to contact Ken or Pete with Best Buy OBX of Outer Banks Blue.

Ken Baittinger
Ken (252) 305-5255
ken@outerbanksblue.com

or

Pete Salitore
Pete (252) 202-4868
pete@outerbanksblue.com