RALEIGH — The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals today upheld a federal judge’s ruling that the N.C. Department of Transportation complied with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and completed all the proper and required steps under the Act to move forward with an environmentally and financially sound option to replace the aging Bonner Bridge.
The 51-year-old bridge is already well beyond its expected 30-year lifecycle and in constant need of repair and maintenance to keep it safe for travel.
On Sept. 16, 2013, Judge Louise Flanagan issued a 42-page order denying all claims that NCDOT violated federal law when it studied and selected the parallel bridge as the least environmentally harmful alternative. That ruling stemmed from lawsuits filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Defenders of Wildlife and National Wildlife Refuge Association in a continued attempt to delay construction of the critical replacement bridge and deny citizens a critical lifeline to the mainland.
“The citizens and visitors of North Carolina appreciate the Fourth Circuit’s thorough opinion that affirms the district court’s summary judgment upholding NCDOT’s NEPA permit. As we review and determine the best way to proceed on other elements of the ruling, which may further delay the project, we are encouraged that our state is one step closer to replacing the Bonner Bridge,” said NCDOT Secretary Tony Tata.
The Court of Appeals ruling said, in part, “They (NCDOT) have neither attempted to circumvent NEPA nor refused to study the overall impacts of the single overall project. Rather, they have conducted a full, site-specific analysis. Thus, their decision to implement the project one phase at a time does not violate NEPA.”
In essence, the Fourth Circuit said the environmental studies and Record of Decision are complete and valid. The ruling also remanded, or asked Judge Flanagan to review again, Section 4(f) requirements, which refer to federal regulations concerning transportation projects in a wildlife refuge. As with the NEPA permit, Judge Flanagan ruled in her previous order that NCDOT took all the correct steps as they apply to Section 4(f).
NCDOT, the Attorney General’s Office and Federal Highway Administration are jointly reviewing the next steps required to deliver the project as soon as possible.
NCDOT is also working with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to resolve a petition at the state level stemming from a similar complaint from the SELC. A hearing before the N.C. Office of Administrative Courts is currently scheduled for October.
NCDOT has spent more than $64 million in necessary repairs, inspection and maintenance since beginning the process to replace the bridge more than two decades ago. The department was forced to close the bridge in December 2013 for 12 days when sand erosion, called scour, at part of the bridge’s support structure reached a critical level and the department’s engineers deemed the bridge unsafe for travel until emergency repairs were made.
NCDOT awarded a $215.8 million contract to PCL Civil Constructors Inc. in August 2011 for the design and construction of a new bridge. Design work began immediately, and construction of the new bridge was originally set to begin in early 2013.
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