Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Currituck County's Mid Currituck Bridge propects continue to erode with NC Political make-up


Top Stories of 2012, No. 4: Mid-Currituck Bridge — Hope to uncertainty

By Cindy Beamon

The Daily Advance

Thursday, December 27, 2012

CURRITUCK — The fate of the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge became less certain in 2012 as lawmakers questioned the $660 million price tag for the project.

At the start of the year, the project appeared to be on its way toward construction in 2014. In January 2012, the N.C. Turnpike Authority, responsible for overseeing the project, released its final environmental impact statement. State officials said the FEIS was the last major hurdle in plans for the seven-mile span linking Currituck’s mainland to the Outer Banks.

But more hurdles have popped up since then.

Last summer, state lawmakers agreed to divert funding from the

project for the second year in a row. Under the earlier leadership of Marc Basnight, D-Dare, the General Assembly had agreed to set aside $28 million a year for the next 30 years to pay the state’s share of costs for the new toll bridge. Turnpike was also negotiating with a private partner to cover the cost of maintaining and operating the project.

Lawmakers have yet to begin making those promised payments.

For the past two years, funds earmarked for the bridge have gone to other road projects. Transportation officials say the funds were not needed until the bridge was closer to construction.

New challenges were also aimed at delaying the start date for construction or possibly ending the funding plan altogether.

State Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, chairman of the state’s Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee, charged “political cronyism,” not the project’s merits, were responsible for the project’s earlier approval in the General Assembly. This fall, he asked the state Department of Transportation to answer a long list of questions about the project.

Currituck commissioners, sensing a threat to the Mid-Currituck Bridge, had hoped to show committee members a newly produced video outlining all the benefits of the bridge. Committee members denied commissioners that chance in October.

The election of a new governor also adds to the project’s uncertainty.

Governor-elect Pat McCrory, while campaigning for the office, said he wanted to examine the merits of the project before deciding if he will support it. Long-time bridge supporter Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, said the governor’s support will be crucial. McCrory appoints members to the state Board of Transportation, responsible for overseeing the state’s contract with its private partner in the project. If the board wants to kill the project, it certainly has that ability as negotiations are underway, said Owens.

The bridge also faces another likely assault from environmental groups. The Southern Law Center and Defenders of Wildlife are already suggesting that funds for the bridge be redirected to Dare County for an alternate option to the Bonner Bridge.

In the midst of the renewed opposition, the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge is not without its optimistic allies.

Two newly elected state lawmakers have vowed to use their Republican connections to garner support for the bridge.

Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, and Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, both said they will have greater influence with a GOP-dominated General Assembly than their Democratic opponents in November’s election would have had.

The bridge will be losing the last of two powerful supporters, however. Basnight left office in 2010, and Owens finishes out his term in December with the bridge’s future still uncertain. Owens has said House Speaker Thom Tillis has pledged his support for the bridge, but changing alliances after November’s election could strain that commitment, some political observers have said.

Bridge supporters have argued that halting the project at this point would cost the state millions of dollars. The state has already invested $24 million in planning the project and stands to lose another $10 million if it backs out of negotiations with its private partner.

Opponents say those losses, although considerable, do not come close to the millions the state will pay if it continues the project.

The Turnpike Authority’s most recent estimate for completion of the project is 2018.

Mid-Currituck Bridge Time Line

January 2012 — Plans for the $660 million mid-county bridge cleared its last major hurdle with release of the final environmental impact statement by the N.C. Turnpike Authority. According to the state’s updated schedule, construction would begin in 2014, and the span would be ready for traffic by 2018

Summer 2012 — Gap funds earmarked for the mid-Currituck bridge are diverted to other road projects for the second year in a row. Lawmakers say the funds were not needed in 2012-13 because construction on the project had not yet begun.

August 2012 — State Sen. Bill Rabon, R- Brunswick, chairman of the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee, questions the state’s plan to pay $28 million for the next 30 years for the new toll bridge linking Currituck’s mainland to the Outer Banks

September 2012 —¬ Gov.-elect Pat McCrory, while running for office, said he would review plans for the mid-Currituck Bridge before deciding if he would support it. Long-time bridge supporter, State Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, said the governor’s support will be crucial to the bridge’s future.

October 2012 ¬— Currituck releases a new video aimed at countering lawmakers’ criticism of the proposed Mid-Currituck bridge.

October 2012 ¬¬— Lawmakers in Raleigh submit a long list of questions about the bridge to state DOT officials. The Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee, an advisory board to the General Assembly, refused an audience with Currituck officials wanting to voice support for the span.

December 2012 — Two environmental groups suggested that funds for the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge be redirected toward finding a solution to erosion problems in Dare County. The Southern Law Center and Defenders of Wildlife are expected to file suit against the Mid-Currituck Bridge after it gains approval from the Federal Highway Administration.