New Outer Banks Bridge Carries NC 12 Around Erosion Hotspots

After a months-long delay, a new $145 million bridge around some of the most flood-prone “hotspots” in the Outer Banks has finally opened.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) announced Thursday that the new 2.4-mile-long bridge that carries NC 12 north of Rodanthe has opened to traffic after delays due to an expansion joint faulty and substandard pavement markings. The inauguration of the new bridge took place in April.

The new jug-handle bridge, which connects Rodanthe to the southern part of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, carries NC 12 which connects the isolated communities of the Outer Banks around the famous “S-bends” just north of Rodanthe. This part of the waterfront is notorious for flooding and road closures associated with storm surges and even monthly tides resulting from the flooding of the causeway with salt water and sand.

A photo of the NC 12 Jug Handle Bridge leaving Rodanthe and swinging over Pamlico Sound taken a few days before it opened.

Earlier this year, severe winter storms saw two seaside homes in Rodanthe fall into the Atlantic Ocean. The strong waves also smashed through unvegetated sand dunes and caused several days of road closures.

As seas continue to rise as the planet warms and climate change brings more unpredictable weather and powerful storm systems to coastal areas, some environmentalists have said it may be the only way to keep paved the way to life.

FUTURE STORM:On the Outer Banks, structures rise and fall as climate change looms

A recent federal report led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) bolstered researchers’ earlier findings that sea levels along the U.S. coast could rise an average of one foot by 2050 – a new worrying for regions like the Outer Banks, which often struggle with choppy surf and overflow events from tropical storm systems.

These systems are expected to increase in number and size due to climate change.

The approximately 2-mile-long causeway replaces a troublesome section of NC 12 north of Rodanthe that crews struggled to keep open during storms and high tides.

While much of the Outer Banks can become dangerous when the Atlantic gets angry, the northern part of Hatteras Island is among the most susceptible to overflow events. Home to some of the highest erosion rates on the North Carolina coast, the Pea Island Refuge transitions from mudflats and marshes along Pamlico Sound to a flat beach, often just a few hundred yards away. The characteristics of the refuge, coupled with high erosion rates and flooding that can come from both the ocean and the healthy sides of the thin island, leave very little room to cross a causeway.

Traffic on NC 12 travels north of Rodanthe through sand dunes which often spill onto the causeway during high tides.

State officials originally proposed linking most of NC 12 through the refuge because there are several overflow “hot spots” between Rodanthe and Oregon Inlet. But the cost – an extended bridge could have cost more than $1 billion – coupled with local opposition saw the project scaled back to the current bridge.

Since NC 12 is the only road link to communities in the southern Outer Banks, including Avon, Buxton and Hatteras Island, the road closure has immediate and devastating effects on the region’s tourism-dependent economy. .

Tourism is big business, and some would say it’s the only big business in Dare County, which includes the Outer Banks. After a slight downturn due to the pandemic in 2020, visitors came back strong in 2021, eager to experience vacations and still somewhat limited in where they could travel outside of the United States.

According to state tourism officials, visitors injected $1.4 billion into the local economy in 2020 and supported nearly 11,800 jobs, or about a third of Dare County’s population, and generated 123 millions of dollars in state and local taxes. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which encompasses most of the southern Outer Banks, also welcomed more than 3 million first-time visitors in 2021, a 20% spike from 2020.

With the new bridge open, the DOT intends to return the section of NC 12 that is bypassed by the new bridge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and remove road asphalt and a chain of sandbags. which protect it from the ocean. Utilities that run along the current state right-of-way through the wildlife refuge will also be relocated to the new roadway.

An area just north of Rodanthe is notorious for flooding which inundates the road with salt water and sand.  The DOT built a 2.4-mile-long bridge to carry NC 12 around the erosion hotspot.

In a statement, the DOT noted that the Rodanthe Bridge is the third new bridge to be completed over NC 12 in the past five years. The Capt. Richard Etheridge on New Inlet, which was opened by Hurricane Irene in 2011, was completed in 2017, and the Marc Basnight Bridge on Oregon Inlet opened in 2019.

Journalist Gareth McGrath can be reached at [email protected] or @GarethMcGrathSN on Twitter. This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund and the Prentice Foundation. The USA TODAY Network retains full editorial control of the work.

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