When Danny Couch looks at the almost-completed new bridge across the Oregon Inlet along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, he sees beauty and certainty.
Beauty because of the structure itself—the new Bonner Bridge roadway will rise 90½ feet in the air at its highest point, and the high-rise portion is 3,500 feet long. And certainty because the bridge is replacing one that had a life expectancy of 30 years—when it was built more than 50 years ago.
“It’s probably going to end up on our county seal, along with the Wright brothers, the Lost Colony and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse,” Couch, a Dare County commissioner who lives on Hatteras Island, said jokingly.
The bridge spans Oregon Inlet, connecting N.C. Highway 12 and Hatteras Island eventually to the mainland. It’s the only access to the island other than ferries.
The new Bonner Bridge was added to the state wish list in 1989-1990. In July 2011, the state issued a contract with construction scheduled to begin in early 2013.
But lawsuits filed by environmental groups delayed the process until those were settled in 2015. Construction finally began in March 2016, and the new bridge is scheduled to open three years later, in February or March.
In July 2017, crews working to replace the bridge accidentally drove a steel casing into the underground cables that provide Hatteras and Ocracoke islands with electricity. Though the Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative’s generators could cover the islands’ permanent residents, they couldn’t accommodate the tourists. Tourists were evacuated and weren’t let back until eight days later.
The outage resulted in a $10 million settlement for businesses, permanent residents and renters.
The new 2.8-mile-long bridge will run parallel to the existing span, which was built in 1963. Maintenance has kept the original bridge open to traffic, although it was closed for more than a week in December 2013 because scour—the loss of sand around the pilings—made the bridge unsafe.
The new, $252 million bridge has a lifespan of 100 years, said Pablo Hernandez, the resident engineer for the district that includes the bridge. “By designing it for a 100-year service life, we are designing it for the worst case that it could experience in those 100 years,” he said.
That includes scour, hurricanes, and the possibility that a dredge will hit the bridge, as one did in 1990, causing a 370-foot section to collapse. It took 3½ months to complete repairs.
The new bridge will have 8-foot shoulders; the original bridge has none.
Couch said locals are ecstatic about the new bridge, which residents depend on to take them north to the mainland. “Doctors’ appointments are a lot more certain. You can get your shopping in.”
The bridge also is important for tourism. Hatteras Island has about 6,000 rental cottages, said Couch, who’s also a real estate agent. “For every man, woman and child who lives on the island, we have almost two rental cottages,” he said. “Just what it can do to wind up our economy is important as well.”
The original bridge is getting a new life, in a way. The parts that are demolished will be added to offshore reef sites, and about 1,000 feet at the south end will stay in place and be open for pedestrians.
Information from The Washington Post was included in this report.