BRADENTON, Fla. - A federal judge removed one of two legal hurdles preventing the construction of a $215.8 million replacement for the aging Bonner Bridge in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
In a 42-page decision Monday, Judge Louise Flanagan ruled that state and federal officials followed proper procedures in researching, designing, and choosing a replacement for the 50-year-old bridge.
The suit, claiming there were violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, was filed in July 2011 by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Defenders of Wildlife and National Wildlife Refuge.
“We’re disappointed by the court’s ruling and believe that the order contradicts federal law for the reasons we argued to the court,” the Southern Environmental Law Center said in a statement. “We’re reviewing the decision and evaluating options with our clients, including the possibility of an appeal.”
The state awarded a contract for the project to PCL Civil Constructors in August 2011, which was put on hold due to legal challenges.
“We’ve spent millions of dollars of taxpayer money keeping the existing bridge open and we know it stands on borrowed time,” North Carolina Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said in a statement. “With this ruling, we are prepared to move as quickly as possible to replace this lifeline bridge.”
It is not clear when that will be, because the environmental groups also have filed for an administrative hearing challenging the state’s permit for the adjacent replacement bridge.
Earlier this month in an update about the project, the North Carolina Department of Transportation said the bridge is a “lifeline” because it is the only highway connection for thousands of Hatteras Island residents to the mainland, as well as an important crossing for tourists.
The 2.5-mile-long Bonner Bridge has weathered storms, a harsh current, and sustained numerous boat crashes. Though it is safe, the state stressed, it has required costly, ongoing repairs.
Under the contract for an adjacent replacement bridge, construction was supposed to begin early this year with completion anticipated in February 2016.
Opponents of the project advocated for a longer, 17-mile-long bridge that would cost as much as $1.15 billion, according to NCDOT Chief Deputy Operations Secretary Jim Trogdon.
“That is not a financially viable option, nor the most efficient way to get this project done,” Trogdon said.
Environmental groups also challenged two other major North Carolina toll road projects, charging that the state and the Federal Highway Administration performed flawed analyses of the projects.
In 2010, a suit by Clean Air Carolina, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, and the Yadkin Riverkeeper successfully convinced a federal judge that the correct review process had not been followed for the $802 million Monroe Connector/Bypass the state’s first toll road - for which much of the debt had already been sold.
The FHA revoked its approval of the Monroe project, and the state currently is performing more studies. The 19.7-mile connector would be a limited-access bypass around heavily congested U.S. 74 from Monroe to Charlotte. Debt for the project was secured by state appropriations and anticipated federal highway revenues.
In 2012 the Catawba Riverkeeper and Clean Air Carolina filed a federal challenge, still pending, to the 22-mile, limited access Garden Parkway. The $1 billion project would create the state’s second toll road, from Interstate 85 west of Gastonia to I-485 near the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
The state had planned to finance the project with a mix of state-appropriation bonds, toll revenue bonds, and grant anticipation revenue vehicle bonds, or Garvees.