For proponents of the Mid-Currituck Bridge, there was some great news last week. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued a Record of Decision (ROD) for the project. The ROD gives a stamp of approval to NDOT’s plans to alleviate the chronic summertime congestion that plagues Corolla, Duck and Southern Shores and the northern approach to the Outer Banks.
The centerpiece of the project is the 4.7-mile Mid-Currituck Bridge that will connect Aydlett on the mainland with the Currituck Outer Banks, terminating about two miles north of the TimBuck II Shopping Plaza.
There are other significant components to the project, most importantly a 1.5-mile bridge over Maple Swamp in Aydlett and significant improvements to the US158/NC12 intersection in Kitty Hawk.
According to the ROD document the total project cost will be $490.59 million, that is higher than the NDOT estimate of $440 million.
The bridge will shorten the trip to the Currituck Banks by 40 miles. Perhaps most importantly, according to the highway engineers and planners who have worked on the project, the bridge will bring evacuation times into compliance with the 18-hour standard the state has set.
In addition to facilitating an evacuation if it is necessary, the bridge should substantially shorten the drive time to Corolla and improve traffic flow in the summer.
The bridge will be a toll road administered by the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.
There is a six month comment period before the ROD becomes the guiding document for the project. After the ROD is finalized, construction bids can be let. If nothing slows the process down, the bridge should be open to traffic sometime in 2023.
The bridge enjoys widespread support in northeastern North Carolina.
In the southern part of mainland Currituck County residents have complained for years that they veritable prisoners in their homes on summer weekends, unable to access Caratoke Highway, US 158, because of the volume of traffic. After getting on the road, what is often a 10-minute ride will often take three to four times longer in stop and go traffic.
On the northern Outer Banks, every town from Southern Shores north to Corolla has raised concerns about the weekend traffic. Merchants, in particular, have complained that the volume of traffic is so heavy that their business suffers because drivers are unwilling to lose their place in traffic lanes.
Some of the strongest support comes from the counties that border Currituck County. In the summer, a significant number of Elizabeth City residents work on the Outer Banks. A bridge across Currituck Sound would create additional employment opportunities for the largest city in the area.
Although most residents and community leaders support the bridge, that support is by no means universal. There are some local residents who are opposed to the project, concerned that faster and better access will create more density and buildout in an area that has already experienced a building boom.
Environmental groups have also raised concerns, in particular, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).
Plans for the Mid Currituck Bridge have been on the books for some time—the first Draft Environmental Impact Statement was issued in 1998—and the SELC and been opposed from the outset. Pointing to further disturbing an already fragile environment, the group has pushed for an alternative road plan that would include significant improvements to the US158/NC12 intersection, as well as improvements to Caratoke Highway in Currituck County.
According to published reports, Kym Hunter, a senior attorney for the SELC, has said, ”This is really a very bad investment for the state of North Carolina. The bridge will be tremendously costly.”
The concerns of the SELC center on the impact on Maple Swamp on the mainland side, buildout that will probably occur along the new transportation corridor, the impact on the Outer Banks environment and the longterm effects of sea level rise and whether over time the bridge will even be necessary.
Given the statements and position of the SELC, it is very possible that a lawsuit will be filed, probably pointing to what they consider an inadequate environmental review process. If a lawsuit is filed, it will probably be toward the end of the ROD comment period.
The ROD, though, is the closest the project has come to actually moving forward. Whether the lawsuits that may be filed will delay the project remains to be seen, but at this time, among supporters of the Mid-Currituck Bridge, there is a sense of optimism that the bridge may someday be built