KITTY HAWK, N.C. (CN) — After being stuck inside for the last year millions of vacationers are expected to cross the Currituck Sound into North Carolina’s Outer Banks this summer.
Gaining access to the barrier islands' 200 miles of sandy beaches and preserved lands where the Wright brothers launched the first successful motor-operated airplane requires visitors to cross over the Wright Memorial Bridge. And while they enjoy the area’s legendary sunshine and cool breezes, what visitors may not realize as they drive from the Oregon Inlet, down through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and along the spine of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is they're heading into a perfect infrastructure storm: Tourism in the area relies upon a 50-year old bridge system and coast-adjacent roadways that have been ravaged by hurricanes and sea-level rise.
It's a problem echoed across the country, and one that President Joe Biden has promised to address. He's proposed a massive infrastructure plan, including billions over the next five years according to a budget plan released Friday, to fix the nation's aging bridge and road system.
But as the history of infrastructure projects in the Outer Banks region illustrates, it's not an easy problem to solve, given financial and environmental concerns, regulatory battles and a historically change-adverse Congress.
In the 1990s, when the mix of roads and bridges across the Oregon Inlet hit its 30-year lifespan, lawmakers began to discuss how to address its failings. Complaints from locals about the loss of access to certain beach fronts, threats to wildlife refuges and many finished — but never utilized — environmental impact statements plagued the project as the Oregon Inlet Bridge began to fall apart.
“The bridge lands on a barrier island that is breaking apart in the face of climate change and sea level rise,” said Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s North Carolina offices. “It’s also a wildlife refuge.”
“You couldn’t pick a project that brings in more environmental considerations in terms of potential impacts,” he added.
Strife continued for decades as the priorities of locals, environmentalists and state and federal governments collided. One dispute landed in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals where, after questioning the bridge’s planning process, Carter’s group won some concessions related to feasible, more environmentally friendly construction options.
That appeal ended in a settlement and the creation of the now two-thirds complete plan of three bridges along and above the 18 miles of protected coastlines.
The first bridge is the recently finished Marc Basnight Bridge, which was selected by American Infrastructure magazine as its 2020 “Bridge of the Year” for being “visually superior” to its predecessor as well as having a 100-year life span and impressive climate resilience.
The third leg, known as the Rodanthe bridge, will bypass some of the protected land but still allow for travel to some of Pea Island’s precious dunes.
The middle bridge is called the Captain Richard Ethridge Bridge, also known as the New Inlet Bridge, sub-named after the water crossing it passes over, which was punched open by Hurricane Irene in 2012.
It’s a temporary bridge to still allow access to Pea Island and could be removed if money becomes available to link the Basnight and the Rodanthe bridges.
“The public wants a reliable transportation corridor, it comes back to that balance; providing safe transport while having access to protected areas,” said Pablo Hernandez, resident engineer for North Carolina’s Department of Transportation Manteo office. He’s been in the business of bridge building since 1999 and has overseen the construction of the collection of Oregon Inlet bridges since the late 2000s.