Southeast
The Mid-Currituck Bridge would extend 4.7 miles across Currituck Sound to Corolla and would include a separate 1.5-mile bridge over Maple Swamp. NCDOT

North Carolina: Will sea-level rise make this $500 million bridge to the Outer Banks obsolete or essential?

RALEIGH: The state wants to build a 4.7-mile toll bridge across Currituck Sound to make it easier for residents and tourists to get on and off the northern Outer Banks, particularly in advance of a hurricane.

But opponents of the Mid-Currituck Bridge say it would unnecessarily harm natural areas in and around the sound and that state and federal transportation agencies have failed to fully assess its viability, particularly in the face of rising sea level.

They say recent estimates of sea-level rise show the approaches to the bridge would be vulnerable to flooding by 2050 and that inundation of low-lying areas would reduce development, cutting into the toll revenue that’s expected to help pay for the $500 million project in coming decades.

The N.C. Wildlife Federation and a citizens’ group called No Mid-Currituck Bridge make those arguments in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court. The suit asks the court to block construction of the bridge and order the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to do another study of the need for the project and its environmental impacts.

“It is unfortunate that Governor Cooper’s NCDOT continues to press forward with this wasteful, destructive bridge” Kym Hunter, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed the lawsuit, said in a statement. “It’s hard to square the governor’s executive order on climate change with this bridge that will encourage more development in a part of North Carolina vulnerable to rising sea levels and coastal flooding.”

YEARS OF PLANNING

The Mid-Currituck Bridge would connect U.S. 158 near Aydlett with N.C. 12 in Corolla, providing an alternative to the Wright Memorial Bridge at Kitty Hawk. For drivers coming south from Virginia, the new two-lane toll bridge would provide a 40-mile shortcut to Corolla, saving up to two hours of drive time each way during busy summer weekends, according to NCDOT.

Planning for the bridge began in the mid 1990s, but support has waxed and waned over the years. In 2009, state officials expected that an international group of private companies would work with the N.C. Turnpike Authority to finance and build the bridge, but legislators balked at giving it special status and decided in 2012 that it should compete with other road projects for state funding.

That same year, NCDOT, the Turnpike Authority and the Federal Highway Administration approved an environmental impact report that spelled out the need for the project and its effects on the environment. It’s that document that opponents say failed to adequately consider less destructive alternatives and is now out of date because of new predictions about sea-level rise.

Specifically, according to the lawsuit, the transportation agencies cited the state Coastal Resources Commission, whose science panel in 2010 predicted a 39-inch rise in sea level along the Outer Banks by 2100. According to the lawsuit, more recent forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put the likely rise at about 81 inches in that time.


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