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The Associated Press December 21, 2010, 11:04AM ET

Bonner Bridge replacement gets green light in NC

North Carolina has the green light to begin work on replacing the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, one of its highest-profile and longest-delayed transportation projects and a key corridor for hurricane evacuations and Outer Banks tourism.

The Federal Highway Administration issued a "record of decision" Monday evening, essentially firing the starter's pistol in the effort to replace the deteriorating, 47-year-old bridge, which connects the northern Outer Banks and Hatteras Island.

"Once the record of decision is issued, we move," said North Carolina Department of Transportation spokeswoman Greer Beaty. "People have been waiting years and years to get to this point."

If all goes well, Beaty said, the bidding process will start in the late spring or early summer of 2011, followed by the beginning of construction in early 2012. The bridge could be open to traffic in 2015. Construction is expected to cost about $300 million in a mix of state and federal funds, money that officials say is already set aside for the purpose.

The bridge is the only way to reach Hatteras Island by land, and nearly 2 million cars cross it every year, making it a crucial corridor not just for tourism but for hurricane evacuations. Portions of the bridge are decaying, especially on the underside where concrete has chipped and steel structures are rusted and corroded. A state inspection in 2004 also found exposed reinforced steel and general deterioration.

Sen. Marc Basnight has been pushing for a new bridge for nearly two decades. When the original span was built in 1963, it was supposed to last 30 years. The Dare County Democrat said he's glad federal hurdles have fallen, but is tempering his enthusiasm.

"What we've seen in the past is that dates that were projected were moved. I've seen that half a dozen times or more," he said.

The plan is to build the new bridge parallel with the current span, through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Environmental groups, though, have called for more study to see if a 17-mile, $1 billion bridge that would bypass the refuge is a better alternative.

The 17-year lapse since the bridge's planned retirement date has created a problem not only for safety but for the area's economy, according to Dare County Commission Chairman Warren Judge.

Tourism pumps about $300 million annually into the local economy, especially during the summer, when roughly 11,000 cars a day cross the aging bridge.

"It needs replacement, and it needs replacement now," Judge said.

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