Introducing the New Oregon Inlet Bridge

Originally thought to be open in late December 2018 or early January 2019, the Herbert C Bonner Bridge, spanning Oregon Inlet will be delayed.  The Coastland Times is reporting that Pablo Hernandez, the project engineer, informed the Oregon Inlet Task Force that it will now open by the end of February, or in Early March 2019. Demolition of the old bridge will be completed by end of 2019.


For the past 2½ years, Pablo Hernandez has spent many days at a project that’s a modern marvel of design, engineering, and construction, something that he considers a highlight of his professional career. The views aren’t bad, either.

Hernandez is the resident engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and he has overseen the new bridge spanning Oregon Inlet that will replace the old Herbert C. Bonner Bridge. In early October, he and assistant engineer Adam Venckauskas happened to be perusing photos of the new bridge taken during the fall storm season of 2017 and even further back. The comparisons were jarring.

“Seeing where we were then versus where we are now, it’s pretty dramatic, how much work has taken place, really since we got up and going in the spring of 2016,” Hernandez said. “When you think about it, we’ve only been here a little more than two years. Adam and I kind of pinch ourselves about how much work has taken place and how fast, and really how successful the contractor has been in getting over those various hurdles.”

As the new bridge is being constructed, the old bridge (on the right) still serves the county. Photo PCL Civil Constructors.

The new 2.8-mile structure is on schedule to open by the end of 2018, Hernandez said. Equally important, disassembly of the old Bonner Bridge is scheduled to commence in the first quarter of 2019 and to be completed by the end of the year in the $251-million project. There will be an approximate 200 yards of the old bridge left on the Hatteras side of the project that will be refurbished into a fishing pier. Both of these projects are vital to Dare County. They provide a state-of-the-art connector, with a 100-year design life, between the northern Outer Banks and Hatteras Island, and they help relieve a choke point for both automotive and maritime traffic.

“It’s going to be huge for the boating and commercial fishing industry,” said Jim Tobin, who owns Pirate’s Cove Marina in Manteo and is a Dare County commissioner. Charter boat captains, he said, “are really excited about getting the old bridge out of there. The old bridge is quite a navigational hazard. You get rid of that obstacle, it’ll be a big plus for the community.”

The new bridge, designed by HDR Engineering of the Carolinas and built by PCL Civil Constructors, is longer, higher, more durable and provides far more navigation options than the present Bonner Bridge. The navigation zone – the highest point of the bridge – stretches 3,550 feet, more than six times longer than the current bridge. The new bridge has seven navigation spans of approximately 300 feet apiece, essential for navigating the roiling, shoaling waters of one of the most dynamic inlets on the east coast. The current bridge, with its humpback design, has one navigation channel of 130 feet. Vehicular traffic lanes are 12 feet wide, and there are eight-foot shoulders on each side, unlike the old Bonner Bridge.

Engineer for the NC Department of Transportation, Pablo Hernandez

“It is crucial, not only for the bridge itself, but for the infrastructure that runs underneath of it – power lines, data lines, those types of things,” said Beth Midgett, a longtime Hatteras Village resident and a rental and property agent for Midgett Realty. She pointed out that the new Bonner Bridge is the largest of three bridges that will enhance connections and transportation on Hatteras Island, along with the Richard Etheridge Bridge on Pea Island, completed in early 2018, and the so-called “jug handle bridge” north of Rodanthe, which began construction in the fall.

“There’s a much greater sense of confidence,” Midgett said. “It’s physical and tangible signs that a lot of money is being invested into the area and the structures are improving, so I think it helps a lot.”

The new Bonner Bridge has more than 16 miles of concrete piles and nine miles of concrete girders. There is enough concrete in the substructure (caps, footings and columns) and bridge deck approaches to cover 173 basketball courts one foot thick. Builders used high-grade stainless steel re-bar, upgraded to stainless steel for many exposed metal components, and added chemical and mineral ad-mixtures to strengthen concrete. To combat scouring, or sand erosion that threaten the integrity of the structure, pilings were driven from 120 to 140 feet deep.

“We feel confident that we have a very robust structure,” Hernandez said. “It’s not going to be maintenance-free, but the cost and expense to build something that’s maintenance-free, whether it’s a house or infrastructure, is prohibitive. But with this particular combination of concrete and re-bar, our maintenance needs are going to be diminished.”

No potential economic impact studies on the effects of the new bridge have been done, but a 2014 study by Moffatt and Nichol on the impact of Oregon Inlet to Dare County provides a hint. The study looked at five main sectors – commercial fishing, seafood packaging and processing, boat building and support services, recreational fishing and tourism, and tournament fishing. Four years ago, those sectors had an economic impact of $403.5 million to Dare County and $548.4 million to the state. The study suggested that if the inlet were to be fully open – with a 14-foot deep navigation channel mandated in 2003 and the kind of flexibility the new bridge will offer – the numbers jump to $642.2 million to the county and $693 million to the state. It also theorized that if economic conditions returned to levels seen in 2005-06, prior to the Great Recession, an open and fully navigable inlet could generate $952.7 million for Dare County and $1.1 billion for the state.

Photo courtesy Wes Snyder

“It will definitely be to our advantage,” said boat builder Paul Mann, whose custom shop is in Manns Harbor. “Having the larger bridge and wider spans is going to make it a lot easier and a lot safer for us to take the larger (boats) that we have in and out of that inlet. It’ll also increase the water flow and water volume, and I think it’ll be a little easier to maintain the depth.”

For example, Mann launched a new, 77-foot hull in early October. He and his team tested the engines and mechanicals in the sound, but for a sea trial never considered threading the current Bonner Bridge or Oregon Inlet to get to the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, they take inland waterways south to Morehead City for the closest safe passage into the ocean. A sea trial for one of his custom hulls could take upwards of half a day, where a more navigable bridge and Oregon Inlet puts him in the Atlantic in 30 minutes.

Mann said that the new bridge will not only help local boatyards, but the sport-fishing industry, as well. Tournament participation is down, he said, because many captains don’t want to risk getting their boats through the Bonner Bridge and Oregon Inlet. It’s not uncommon for boats to get maintenance work done nearby while competing in tournaments.

“If they can’t get here,” he said, “you’re not only missing out on boatyard service work, you’re also missing out on all the tax dollars and money that they bring here to fish these tournaments. That’s a significant drain on the economy.”

Hatteras Island residents said that signs of improvement were palpable, even before the first piling was driven.

“Before construction even started, once the decision was made to go forward with it, I saw an uptick and more confidence in businesses to add on or to hire people to move on,” said Natalie Kavanagh, whose family owns Frisco Rod and Gun. “I think the real estate market saw an uptick. More confidence to build and buy.”

Kavanagh, 44, traces her Hatteras Island roots to the 1700s. Her husband, Jay, runs a charter fishing boat out of Hatteras Harbor, and they own a small boatyard. She and Midgett were leaders of the Bridge Moms, one of several advocacy groups that sprang up through the years and fought for a new bridge, as impact studies were done and lawsuits from environmental concerns delayed construction. They saw a deteriorating structure, well past its expected lifespan, threaten the entire community.

“It wasn’t just an economic issue,” Kavanagh said. “It became a safety issue. More people were concerned about the safety rating of the bridge.”

“It was always a hard message to communicate the urgency and the need to replace the old bridge without scaring the bejeebies out of people,” Midgett said with a laugh. “We would word it that it was safe at this point in time, but that time is running out. I think there was a huge sigh of relief, once you actually, physically saw it going in. We had gotten close so many times, but then it would stop for different reasons – injunctions, lawsuits or whatever.”

Danny Couch, a Buxton resident and county commissioner, pointed out that Hatteras Island has approximately 3,400 full-time residents and 6,000 rental properties, which increase the population 10 or 12 times during the summer months. Those properties need to be maintained, and both visitors and residents serviced.

“The economy is screaming hot here,” he said. “We’re all working our butts off. It seems like everybody’s working two or three jobs just to keep up. When we get a chance to cross the bridge and catch our breath and take a look at it, we just marvel at what a magnificent piece of engineering it is. We’ll be experiencing the positive aspects of this bridge for many years to come.”

Ground-breaking for the new bridge took place in early March 2016, and builders will come close to meeting the original timetable of the bridge opening for traffic in early 2019 – a remarkable feat, given the area’s storms, currents and weather conditions. Approaching tropical storms suspended construction four times in August and September of 2017 alone.

That said, there have been missteps and mistakes. The most notable occurred July 27, 2017, when construction crews accidentally drove a steel casing into an underground power cable near the south end of the new bridge. The accident caused an eight-day power outage on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands during the height of tourist season and forced the evacuation of approximately 44,000 people. PCL eventually reached a $10.3-million settlement with residents, businesses and vacationers affected by the power outage in a class-action lawsuit. However, the power outage and subsequent reconnect efforts caused no delay in bridge construction.

“PCL was extremely responsive,” Hernandez said, in the wake of the accident. “They work with us. They work with the community, and they worked with Cape Hatteras Electric. They did everything they could, as quickly and safely as they could, to try to gain access to those power lines that were cut, so that Cape Hatteras Electric could get their specialty contractor in there to perform the splices and do it safely. It’s not an event that I would like to go through, or the department or PCL, ever again, but we had to work together and we did the best we could to try to minimize the impacts.”

To call the new Bonner Bridge a collaborative effort is an epic understatement. State and federal officials were involved. The design firm reached out to academic and engineering experts as it researched worst-case and high-stress scenarios. New materials were tested. Precast pieces were done in Chesapeake, VA, and transported here. The builders drew upon lessons learned from the old Bonner Bridge, as well as new and recent construction of structures from Maine to the Gulf Coast. The project itself has an average of 250 workers on site, Hernandez estimated, and has had as many as 45-50 senior supervisors and engineers here overseeing what’s almost three or four separate jobs that will meet in the middle for one signature bridge.

“It’s not like it was 50 years ago,” Kavanagh said. “This is a very busy, thriving community of visitors and locals, and we need that access to be a strong community, and the new Bonner Bridge is a big part of that.” ♦

Dave Fairbank currently resides in Kill Devil Hills. Prior to relocating to the Outer Banks, he was a sports writer for the Newport News Daily Press for 30 years.

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