Fate of Mid Currituck Bridge Still Hangs in the Balance
Even after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upheld a lower court finding on February 23 in favor of NCDOT and the Mid Currituck Bridge, it’s still unclear when or even if the much-delayed toll bridge will be built.
Current plans call for construction to begin in 2024 on the $500 million-plus project. But there are a number of obstacles, some legal, some financial, that will have to be addressed before construction can begin.
If built, the seven-mile-long bridge will connect mainland Currituck County with the Currituck Outer Banks (Corolla), bypassing the intersection of US158 and NC12 in Kitty Hawk that many feel is the crux of the weekend traffic jams in the summer. Currituck and Dare County officials see the bridge as the most effective way to alleviate the traffic woes in the summer that have plagued the Outer Banks since the 1990s.
What the court found in its February ruling was that NCDOT had fulfilled its legal requirements in issuing a Record of Decision (ROD). The ROD outlines the scope of the project for potential bidders.
The project was slowed by COVID, and the lawsuit, originally filed in 2022 further delayed moving forward. NCDOT is building the bridge, but they are building it for the North Carolina Turnpike Authority. Although the NCTA is part of NCDOT, there appear to be some differences in how the two agencies approach the preliminary work needed to begin construction.
At this point in time, there is a gap between the projected cost of the bridge and the funds available. The information NCDOT has filed on the cost shows $468 million in a combination of bonds and funds allocated through 2030. Those funds are committed to the project and cannot be easily applied elsewhere. However, there seems to be a substantial gap between the funds that have been committed and the estimated cost of the bridge of $502.4 to $594.1 million. To date, neither NCDOT nor NCTA have indicated how that difference between committed funds and projected cost will be addressed.
The permitting process has also just begun. Because the bridge will be crossing a navigable waterway, the list of permits is formidable. Adding to the sensitive nature of the permits, the route includes crossing a fragile wetland on the mainland side—Maple Swamp—and other wetlands along the shoreline.
In an interview with the Outer Banks Voice earlier this month, Kim Meyer, Lead Attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), the environmental law firm that brought suit against NCDOT, indicated the permitting process was a possible area of future litigation. She did not specifically say that the SELC would oppose the permits, but she did point to them as a “…potential point of disagreement.”
The SELC was the environmental law firm that delayed the construction of the Marc Basnight Bridge over Oregon Inlet for years. The Bonner Bridge that the Basnight Bridge replaced, was more than double its 25-year projected lifespan when the new bridge opened in 2019.
It is important to note, however, that the SELC did not oppose a transportation corridor connecting Hatteras Island with the northern Outer Banks; it was their belief that the best solution was a 17-mile bridge in Pamlico Sound paralleling Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
The SELC is on record, though, as opposing the Mid-Currituck Bridge in any form, and that is an important distinction.
Underscoring the SELC’s opposition to the MCB, Meyer wrote on her organization’s website, “Our state would be better served directing funding and resources to road improvements needed to improve resiliency in Eastern North Carolina rather than this wasteful, destructive bridge. This unneeded bridge wastes taxpayer money and encourages more high risk development in a part of North Carolina already vulnerable to rising sea levels and coastal flooding due to climate change.”
The SELC did offer an alternative plan for the bridge that included significant improvements to the intersection of NC12 and US158. The plan was somewhat similar to one of the alternatives to building the bridge NCDOT had considered and rejected before selecting the bridge as the preferred alternative. Traffic engineers were particularly concerned that even as an improved intersection, it would be a choke point if an evacuation was ordered.
Meyer’s statement also raises the issue of development in the Corolla area. It is unclear if an improved road system will affect construction on the Currituck Banks. Historic evidence suggests that construction will continue regardless of the transportation network.
The SELC brought suit on behalf of the Concerned Citizens and Visitors opposed to the Mid Currituck Bridge and the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.
Tolls for Mid Currituck Bridge have not yet been established. Estimates of the toll for the bridge generally range around $50 for a round trip.