North Carolina wants to spend $216 million, mostly in federal tax money, to rebuild a bridge to a ribbon-thin Outer Banks island even though the highway it leads to has been severed twice in three years by sea water and storms.
The project is pitting environmentalists and scientists, who say climate change imperils the Hatteras Island road, against residents and the Republican-led state government, which banned using a report predicting rising sea levels in regulatory decisions. North Carolina officials say no other bridge route is practical because the costs would be prohibitive.
Even as the Obama administration seeks to convince the public that global warming is already prompting increases in coastal flooding, states are tapping federal money to build and rebuild roads and bridges in areas vulnerable to rising water and storm damage. From New York to Florida, tax dollars are being used for transportation projects in areas that already have been damaged by the Atlantic Ocean, said Robert Young, a North Carolina geologist who studies developed coasts.
“We have to ask ourselves whether it makes economic sense to spend federal dollars on projects that are only going to be destroyed,” Young said.
On Hatteras, where sandbags surround pilings under raised beach houses, and rotting posts stand as monuments to homes destroyed by hurricanes, residents including Dare County Commissioner Allen Burrus dispute that climate change is imperiling the highway.
“They are basing that stuff on a lot of pseudo science,” said Burrus, owner of Burrus Market, a family business selling groceries and souvenirs that was started in 1866, making it the oldest store on the island.
A U.S. government advisory panel said yesterday that climate change is prompting increases in coastal flooding and heavier rains. More than 5,790 square miles and more than $1 trillion of property and structures are at risk of inundation from sea-level rise of two feet, which could happen by 2050, the panel said in a report.
The U.S. Transportation Department, which funds 80 to 100 percent of most state highways and bridges, has no authority to withhold funding for state-led projects vulnerable to storm damage and rising sea levels, said Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the department’s Federal Highway Administration.
Highway funding legislation proposed in Congress includes language encouraging states to consider rising water. Even if adopted, the measure is unlikely to make a difference because there’s no binding requirement, said Joshua Schank, president and chief executive officer of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington transportation policy group.
North Carolina passed a law in 2012 preventing the use of a state-commissioned scientific prediction in setting coastal policies.
Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, a joint Duke University-Western Carolina University project, was among scientists who drafted the 2012 report on rising sea levels. The report predicted an average 39 inch (1 meter) increase along the North Carolina coast by the year 2100.
That would put the stretch of North Carolina 12 -- the road that connects with the bridge -- underwater, said Young. Long before that happens, rising water will lead to more damaging storm surges, he said. High tides already are level with the road in some areas during even minor storms.
North Carolina is planning to build bridges over about five miles of the highway destroyed in hurricanes in 2011 and 2012, at a cost of as much as $316 million in federal and state dollars. Additional bridges will be needed to raise the road in other areas expected to be washed away, according to the state.
“Highway 12 is an egregious example of how we are continuing to pour federal funds into trying to hold land we cannot hold,” Young said.
Hatteras, a 50-mile-long island, features sweeping sand dunes, stilt-perched beach houses, surfing and blue marlin. Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, it’s connected to Nags Head, a town in coastal Dare County, by the 2.7 mile Bonner Bridge, built in 1963.
The bridge opened Hatteras and its seven beach towns to tourism. Visitors to the area spent $926.3 million in 2012, making it the state’s fourth biggest tourist destination, behind its three biggest cities, according to a report prepared for the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development.
The island itself is unstable. The ocean is constantly pushing it south and toward land, wrote Stanley Riggs, a geology professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, in “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast.” The northern 12 miles of it, where the Bonner Bridge now connects, are the most vulnerable.
The northern section of the road runs through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, home to more than 365 species of birds.
Darker stretches of concrete show where the road has been moved to escape the water. A segment that once separated an abandoned Coast Guard station from the sea is now behind it.
The state created a berm of 8-foot-tall dunes to protect the road. State bulldozers, dump trucks and cranes are stationed permanently on a gravel lot at the bridge’s Hatteras terminus to rebuild the dunes and clear the road.
State officials have been talking for years about replacing the Bonner Bridge, vulnerable to strong currents and erosion, with a new one built of stronger material.
By 2003, the state devised a $260 million plan to replace the bridge with a longer one that avoids the eroding part of the highway. Hatteras residents objected. The project would cut off land access to the wildlife refuge, local officials said.
“We will have stolen from the people of this state and nation one of America’s premier fishing spots,” wrote then state Senate President Marc Basnight.
The state scrapped the plan, and decided to rebuild the bridge where it is, with federal funds paying for 80 percent.
The road connecting to the bridge will continue to erode and state and federal money will be used to fix it, said Bobby Lewis, chief of staff for the state transportation department. The longer bridge would cost more than $1 billion, he said, a price that’s too high.
“Our mission is to keep reliable access to the communities out there and be as fiscally responsible as possible,” Lewis said.
The bridge is stalled in litigation. The Southern Environmental Law Center sued in 2011 on behalf of two environmental groups, saying that an environmental review didn’t meet legal requirements because it failed to include a long-term solution for the highway. The environmentalists lost in federal court and the case is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia.
State officials reject the legal claims.
“Those ivory tower elitists file these lawsuits from their air-conditioned offices,” Transportation Secretary Tony Tata told reporters in December. “And they do so with their lattes and their contempt, and chuckle while the good people of the Outer Banks are fighting hard to scratch out a living here based on tourism and based on access.”
In coming years, there may be fewer federal dollars available to spend on roads and bridges damaged by rising waters and storms, as more damage spreads to more populated areas that seek funding, said Orrin Pilkey, emeritus professor of Geology in the Nicholas School for the Environment at Duke University in Durham.
“Nobody is going to care about North Carolina,” he said. “Defending that road there is long-term madness.”