July 23, 2013

Bonner Bridge replacement now tied
to two pending court decisions

By CATHERINE KOZAK



With the fate of a new bridge over Oregon Inlet tied to two pending court decisions, questions are again bubbling up about the consequences of continual delays on replacement of the 50-year-old Herbert C. Bonner Bridge.

It’s not only a matter of safety – the bridge is 20 years beyond its service life, said Beth Midgett, chairwoman of the Citizens Action Committee to Replace the Bonner Bridge.  It’s also a matter of wise use of limited funds.
 
“Does the public want to keep repairing a sub-standard structure,” she said, “or does the public want to spend $215 million to build a structure that’s going to last for 50 years?”

Midgett said that the wider span in the replacement design would also mean less need to dredge the inlet, another big cost savings.

Planning for a new bridge began in 1990, but bureaucratic and legal challenges, as well as significant design changes and storm damages, have slowed progress.
 
The permit that would allow construction to begin, known as the Major CAMA permit, was finally granted last September by the state Coastal Resources Commission.  It was soon challenged by the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association, and a judge has recently allowed a yet-to-be scheduled court review of the state permit.

Also, a decision on the environmental groups’ lawsuit challenging the federal permit for the bridge is expected any day from U.S. District Court Judge Louise Flanagan.

The federal ruling will likely guide the state judge’s decision on the CAMA permit, “because it’s essentially the same information,” said Victor Barbour, North Carolina Department of Transportation technical services administrator.

If the judge rules against DOT, the next step, he said, would be making “the decision on whether we would appeal that decision or not.”

Work on the bridge, meanwhile, has been stopped. 

In July 2011, the Raleigh-based design-build team PCL Civil Constructors and HDR Engineering Inc. of the Carolinas were awarded a $215.8 million contract to build the replacement bridge.

The Request for Proposal included complicated formulas for adjustments to the bid amount if there were delays, based on the 20-City Construction Cost Index that is published in the Engineering New Record. The actual adjustment would calculate a percentage of the bid compared with the percentage of change in the index value during the delay. 

Matt Persing, senior project manager of PCL, said that although the work stoppage related to the legal challenges was anticipated in the contract, such delays are not everyday events.

“Yes, this is an unusual circumstance and is atypical,” he said in e-mail.

Persing added that it is “difficult to answer or assess” what the impact would be to his company if the delay continues for several more months.

“As stated above,” he wrote, “the RFP clearly identified the possibility of an extended delay and we are prepared to react accordingly.”
 
If the company had been given the go-ahead to proceed in December, Persing said, the project would have been completed in the early months of 2016. He said that a local Realtor had been hired to secure housing for the salaried staff.  At the height of the project, about 100 workers would be onsite.

A cap of $17 million was provided for contractors to complete the design and conduct load tests.  Since that work was done in the spring, the project work has been idled while waiting for the legal cases to be resolved.

In addition to a CAMA permit, the project also needs permits from the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Beth Smyre, DOT project planning engineer.

Smyre said that DOT has worked out conditions for each of the permits and does not expect any problems with obtaining them once the legal hurdles are cleared.

“Until we have that all –the court decision and the remaining permits – we can’t proceed,” she said. “It’s such a unique project that we knew that this kind of challenge could come. They were prepared for it.”

A $1.4 million repair project scheduled in the fall will address some scour protection issues with the bridge, but she said there’s just so much fixing that can be done to keep the bridge passable.

“We may be able to get beyond the 2016 point, but certainly we’re going to get to the point where we need a new bridge,” she said.

The Bonner Bridge, which is rated in poor condition, is inspected annually and after every storm, she said. So far, it’s still safe, but the day may come when weight limits may have to be imposed, or worse, it has to be closed.

Midgett said that continually patching the bridge is as futile as continually trying to look young past your expiration date.  And that’s what scares her.
 
“You can be a fine-looking older woman,” she said. “You can have Botox. You can have implants.

“But inside, you have hardening of the arteries. Sooner or later, you’re going to keel over.”

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