OBX - May/June




Bridge to the Banks

Mid Currituck bridge takes giant step towards completion and could alleviate traffic woes for many summer vacationer traveling from Hampton Roads to the OBX.

By Kip Tabb

We propose to build a bridge.” With those six words from the North Carolina Turnpike Authority (NCTA) Draft Environmental Impact Statement, decision makers have taken the first measurable steps towards alleviating one of the worst vacation traffic jams in the United States with the building of the Mid Currituck Bridge in the Outer Banks. On a Saturday in the summer, it takes about an hour to an hour and a quarter to drive from Norfolk to the Cotton Gin in Jarvisburg (a pretty well-known landmark on the way to the Outer Banks). The next 15 miles to the intersection of US 158 and NC 12—the road that goes north to Corolla—takes an hour on a good day and an hour and a half the rest of the time. If there is an accident anywhere on the Caratoke Highway (US 158) traffic has been known to back up through Grandy (the next town north) and in a worst cast situation, all the way to the Knapp Bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway.

When leaving the Outer Banks on a Saturday morning, traffic comes to a standstill as the 70,000 temporary residents of the north combine with greater numbers from the south at the Wright Brothers Bridge.
Residents along the route—both in southern Currituck and northern Dare County—are trapped in their homes. Employers have complained for years that they can’t schedule people because employees can’t get to work, which may be a moot point since no one is willing to fight traffic to play a round of golf in Currituck County or stop at any of the specialty stores in Duck.

Every weekend in the summer a mid-sized city of visitors leave and arrive on the Outer Banks. Some of them come from the west through Manteo, but by a considerable margin the majority of them travel from the north, crossing the Wright Brothers Bridge at Point Harbor and entering the Outer Banks at Kitty Hawk. That entire volume of traffic is handled by those two highways—there are no side roads, shortcuts or other ways on or off the Outer Banks.

It’s the geography of the area that’s the problem, as the Outer Banks are really nothing more than sandbars that have managed to rise above sea level, and for the most part they do a pretty good job of stopping the ocean—the Atlantic to the east and a series of bays, estuaries and sounds to the west. The northern most sound is Currituck Sound, which starts just about at the Wright Brothers Bridge and extends north all the way to Back Bay and North River in Hampton Roads.

Don’t mistake the northern Outer Banks for an island—it is part of a continuous spit of land beginning at Sandbridge and extending all the way down to Oregon Inlet. Forty years ago, or so, plans were drawn to build a road from Virginia Beach south to what is now Corolla, but the development of state and federal parks and recreation areas killed that idea in 1973. In 1978, as part of a planning exercise for the UNC School of Government, a bridge spanning the Currituck Sound was first proposed. For a number of reasons neither the plans for a nascent resort community in Corolla nor the bridge were implemented. However, as a historic benchmark, the concept of a Mid Currituck Bridge has been on the books for 33 years.

When the state of North Carolina paved Route 12 to Corolla in 1984, the development of the Currituck Banks as a tourist destination began. By 1990, it became apparent that there were problems, and a bridge crossing the Currituck Sound at its midpoint has been a part of NC Department of Transportation’s TIP (Transportation Improvement Plan) ever since.

The first attempt to complete the project failed miserably. The 2003 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was flawed, studies supporting its findings were poorly executed, and the Army Corps of Engineers refused to agree that a Mid Currituck Bridge would help with hurricane evacuation times. By the time the dust had settled, funding for the bridge was no longer available, and although it enjoyed widespread support from residents and visitors alike, the project was put on hold. Largely through the efforts of local organization Build the Bridge-Preserve Our Roads (BBPOR), the project was not forgotten. Recognizing that alternative financing for the bridge needed to be found, the group lobbied for it to become part of the newly formed NCTA in 2007 and then, to further offset the cost of construction and maintenance, the group worked with project managers to create a public private project (PPP).

PPPs in road construction gain more and more acceptance as federal and state governments find themselves strapped for cash but still needing to move forward with road projects. Complex in their structures, in many cases the private entity issues bonds, the government insures the bonds and the private company repays the bonds through revenue generated by the use of the road. The Mid Currituck Bridge will be a toll road. As proposed, the bridge will exit mainland Currituck County at Aydlett, cross an environmentally sensitive area called Maple Swamp, span the sound and come back to land on the Outer Banks about a mile north of the Timbuck II shopping plaza in Corolla.

The approximate cost of the bridge will be in the neighborhood of $650 million. Because of the state’s partnership with ACS Infrastructure—a Spanish company that specializes in PPPs—North Carolina will not have to provide the initial funding for the project. Nonetheless, if the plan does go forward, the state will be obligated to pay $15 million per year in development costs and loan guarantees. Responding to written questions in February of this year, freshman state Senator Stan White (D) of the first district (representing the affected counties) wrote, “At this time, the plan to build the Mid Mid Currituck Bridge is still on track. However, it remains an issue of great concern to me because I fear this essential economic development project could become a target of state budget cuts.” In a follow-up interview in March, Sen. White mentioned that the project remained in the budget, but he was unsure of its fate as the budget process worked its way through the state legislature. “I was talking to the Republican leadership,” he said. “They told me the funding was still intact, but it was not set in stone.”

Although budget questions are hanging over it, with more than 30 years of history behind the concept, it’s difficult to see how the Mid Currituck Bridge project will not go forward at some point. If the funding remains intact, construction is slated to begin in early 2012, with the bridge opening to traffic in 2016 and easing some of the stress of summer travel to OBX for many Hampton Roads vacation seekers.


Outer Banks Recommended Merchants

The Blue Point
Over 20 years of dining excellence on the Outer Banks, The Blue Point offers unequaled southern hospitality and dynamic southern cuisine overlooking the beautiful Currituck Sound. 1240 Duck Rd., Duck N.C. 27949. 252-261-8090 www.goodfoodgoodwine.com

Brindley Beach Vacations & Sales
Brindley Beach Vacations offers over 500 vacation homes, 2-10 bedroom, Oceanfront to Soundfront, elevators, pools, hot tubs, pet friendly! Linens and towels provided. 877-642-3224 www.brindleybeach.com

Hilton Garden Inn
Centrally located in Kitty Hawk, between the North and South Beaches, The Hilton Garden Inn’s gorgeous design and outstanding amenities are only surpassed by endless oceanfront views! 252-261-1290 www.hiltongardeninnouterbanks.com

The Lost Colony
An Outer Banks tradition since 1937, The Lost Colony tells the story of the first English settlers in the New World. Written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paul Green and performed summer nights at the open-air Waterside Theatre. For more information call 252-473-3414 or buy tickets online at www.thelostcolony.org

Ocean Boulevard Bistro & Martini Bar
American Bistro with seasonal, upscale innovative menus, extensive Wine and Martini list & ocean views. Live Music Fridays Late Night. Open all year. MP 2.5 on the Beach Road, Kitty Hawk, NC. 252-261-2546 www.obbistro.com

Quality Inn Carolina Oceanfront
Centrally located on the Outer Banks of NC. Breath taking views, fresh coffee, a wonderful deluxe continental breakfast and all the amenities of home.... you just might move in. 401 N. Virginia Dare Trail Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948 800-854-5286 www.qualityinncarolinaoceanfront.com

Ramada Plaza Hotel
Located in Kill Devil Hills, the Ramada Plaza Resort offers a beautiful oceanfront, full-service catering/bar, an oceanview ballroom and restaurant, an  indoor/outdoor pool with Jacuzzi and much more. 252-441-2151, 800-635-1824 www.ramadaplazanagshead.com

Sun Realty
Representing the best of the Outer Banks. Sun Realty offers the best selection of fine vacation homes on the Outer Banks. Pet friendly, luxury, short stays & more! Exclusive online specials available. 888-853-7757 www.SunRealtyNC.com

 

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