How North Carolina Halted a Bridge Boondoggle

mid-currituck_bridge

Map credit: Lochner MMM

by James A. Bacon

Many Virginians know the agony of driving to vacation in the Outer Banks at the peak of the summer season. Heading south between Chesapeake and Kitty Hawk, you follow four-lane roads jammed with as many as 50,000 cars on Saturdays. Then, if you’re staying in Duck, Whalehead or Corolla, you have to head back north through more congestion. It sure would be nice to have a bridge across the Currituck Sound directly to Corolla.

As it happens, the state of North Carolina was planning to build a seven-mile span from Coinjock to Corolla. The Mid-Currituck Bridge, expected to cost $411 million in its most recent incarnation, could save an hour’s driving time. The project worked its way through the traditional North Carolina project-approval system and, at one point, construction was expected to begin in 2012 and to be open to traffic in 2013.

I’m sure there are a lot of vested interests in the Outer Banks that would love to see new transportation capacity that would make it easier for even more visitors to come rent cottages, rent kayaks and go surfing. But North Carolina has instituted a system that we’re still working on here in Virginia: a methodology for ranking proposed highway projects according to cost, saved travel time, congestion relief, safety and economic benefits. According to the Virginian-Pilot, the Tarheels have scored some 1,284 projects and plans to release results for another 500 in May.

The result for the proposed Currituck Bridge: a score of 23.4 points out of a possible 100, giving it a rank of 178th in importance to North Carolina. It doesn’t look like the bridge will get state funding any time soon.

I have a problem with over-development of the ecologically fragile spit of land that originates in Virginia and extends almost unbroken all the way to Hatteras. The Outer Banks are a national treasure. Federal flood insurance subsidies are already encouraging excessive building on sand that could literally wash away with the next hurricane. The state of North Carolina doesn’t need to be subsidizing over-building as well.

That concern aside, I have a suggestion for the county officials of Currituck County who have been lobbying for the bridge. Don’t ask the citizens of North Carolina to pay for your bridge. Figure out how to pay for it yourself.

Issuing 30-year, tax-free bonds to cover the cost of $411 million bridge would require roughly $30 million a year in revenue. Could the bridge generate enough value for the tourism industry in the Northern Outer Banks to pay $30 million in financing costs and have local businesses come out ahead? If so, enact the needed legislation and get the deal done. If not, then the bridge, which is needed to accommodate peak traffic that occurs 13 or 14 Saturdays out of the year, would destroy economic value, not create it, and should never be built.

There are at least three potential financing mechanisms: tolls, value capture and excise taxes.

Tolls: A harried dad with antsy kids in the back seat would gladly fork over $10 or more to shave an hour off his drive to Corolla or points south. A toll could generate millions of dollars in revenue each summer to pay off the bonds issued to build the bridge. Indeed, before the project was put on hold, the Mid-Currituck Bridge project would have charged tolls. However, the North Carolina legislature envisioned the need to spend $28 million a year in gap funding, according to the News & Observer.

Value capture. Major beneficiaries of a bridge would be the owners of hotels and rental property. A bridge that cut driving time and made Currituck destinations the closest to Northern markets would allow owners to raise rents and generate more revenue. Set up a special district to impose a property tax surcharge to capture some of that added value and use it to pay off the bonds.

Resort meals tax. Other beneficiaries include owners of restaurants, shops and other beach amenities. Create a special resort tax district that collects an extra penny per dollar on retail sales. Apply that to pay off the bonds.

I doubt it would work. The tourism business in the Northern Outer Banks just isn’t big enough to support a project of this magnitude, and it is never likely to be. Admittedly, the Mid-Currituck Bridge would provide some congestion relief for travelers following Rt. 158 to Kitty Hawk and points south, and it would provide an alternate hurricane evacuation route (although it would likely bottleneck where Rt. 158 and the bridge joined near Coinjack). It might be possible to justify a modest state investment to reflect those benefits — but $28 million a year?

As much as I would love the citizens of North Carolina to subsidize my vacation in Corolla — one of my favorite spots on the planet — I don’t think it’s a winner. Fortunately for them, they have a road project-ranking system that will help steer them clear of boondoggles like this one. I look forward to getting a similar system in Virginia.

(Hat tip: Larry Gross.)

12 Responses to How North Carolina Halted a Bridge Boondoggle

  1. Jim,
    Not sure you characterize the Outer Banks correctly. The Currituck bridge would connect the northern banks and areas like Duck and Corolla that tend to cater to upscale vacationers. There aren’t many putt-putt golf courses there — haute cuisine is more like it. Also, if you look at a map, you will see that there aren’t any charter boat operations either because the closest outlet to the sea is Oregon Inlet. You’d have to drive many miles to the south through the mess of Kitty Hawk and Nags Head to get to such a boat place.
    Take it from me. I’ve been going to the Outer Banks since 1954.

    • I was thinking of the congestion relief afforded those who vacationed in Kitty Hawk or Nag’s Head. But just for you — I haven’t been going to the Outer Banks since 1954… only since 1960 — I changed charter boats and putt-putt golf to renting kayaks and going surfing.

      • I am going to call BS on both you and Peter going charter fishing. Richmond area residents like you two are too busy re-enacting the Civil War to have time for things like deep sea fishing!

        On the weekend before Thanksgiving I book a charter with Capt. Paul Lester on the Osprey out of Oregon Inlet. Head down on Saturday afternoon. Stay in a cheap hotel offering off-season rates. Drink too much at a local bar. Get up Sunday morning and be at the dock by 5:30 am. Roll 1.5 hours out to the Gulf Stream. Troll for yellowfin tuna. Come back to the dock by 4:30 (hopefully with the limit of 3 yellowfin per person), clean the fish, pack the coolers and head home.

        Now that my sons are in college and can’t join me I’ll invite both of you Earnest Hemmingway’s next November.

        By the way – both of you Outer Banks dudes seem to have missed a big point. Erosion has caused the Bonner Bridge to be shut down. It was reopened a couple of weeks later but the closure points out the need for infrastructure repairs to existing roads, bridges, etc. Maybe NC “got religion” when they realized the only automobile access to Hatteras Island was in trouble. Maybe they decided that fixing important bridges was more important than building somewhat unnecessary new bridges.

        The Osprey will go under the Bonner Bridge on the way out and back. Let’s hope it doesn’t fall down on us during our fishing trip!

    • The big environmental issue with the new bridge is that it will put immense pressure on local politicians to pave Rt 12 north of Corolla Light. Right now, you have to get onto the Outer Banks via the Wright Memorial Causeway. Then, make a left to head north and go quite a ways to get to Corolla. So, the beach area north of Corolla Light is a bit inconvenient. Build that bridge and everything changes. The beach north of Corolla Light suddenly becomes absolutely prime real estate and the voices clamoring for Rt 12 to be extended to the Virginia border start in earnest.

      • re: “It would be catastrophic if something happened to the Bonner Bridge,” said Hatteras Island resident and business owner Beth Midgett. “The bridge is a necessary part of our lives and our livelihood, and all of our electrical and communications lines run underneath it. Losing this critical connection would be a devastating blow to our community and a big hit to the state’s tourism industry.”

        re” The beach north of Corolla Light suddenly becomes absolutely prime real estate and the voice clamoring for Rt 12 to be extended to the Virginia border start in earnest.”

        this is actually a pretty meaty issue.

        first – why is the Bonner Bridge being undermined by strong currents and under water sand erosion?

        is it something new or something that has been going on since 1963 when it was built. we have bridges over the Rappahannock in Fredericksburg that were built 70+ years ago and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel has been around quite a few years .. and as far as I know does not need replacement.

        so what’s going on?

        re” The beach north of Corolla Light suddenly becomes absolutely prime real estate and the voice clamoring for Rt 12 to be extended to the Virginia border start in earnest.”

        with respect to NCDOT now prioritizing projects and making this one low on the list – at the same time they are planning to replace Bonner Bridge.

        why not “move” it North … a “little” then either toll it and/or put in a transportation district tax and/or a special tax on new development?

        why does any of this have to be paid for by anyone other than the region that needs it and uses it? this is not a bridge of state-wide connectivity importance … it’s regional.. not unimportant… but primarily regional.

        Special Morning Bonus Question – with regard to you-know-what “warming” and more specifically subsidized flood insurance. What will happen to the “deniers” as well as developers of that “prime” property if the plug is pulled on flood insurance subsidies?

        People in coastal New Jersey are already living this. Many homes cannot be re-built in place unless the owners either put them on stilts or pay triple/quadruple insurance rates.

        how “develop-able” will Corona and locale be if all homes have to be on 25 foot stilts and NCDOT ends up re-thinking how much it’s going to cost to keep NC 12 open after storms have cut it multiple times in multiple places in the next decade?

        I think we’ll find out soon if we start hearing about real “steals” on real estate on the OBx.

        special silly question to Jim B: could you, would you comment on the “smart growth” potential of OBX?

        ;-)

        • oops.. got my bridges screwed up… it’s the Wright memorial bridge that is at Kitty Hawk… and Bonner connects over Oregon Inlet.

          my bad.

          but some of my comment is still relevant in terms of building a new bridge north, putting tolls on it, the loss of subsidized insurance, and making development pay for the gap funding if the tolls are not sufficient.

          The Bonner Bridge is an example of the dilemma we face if oceans are rising and storms and tidal surges are going to become more numerous. I’d be curious to know how the Bonner Bridge scored compared to the Corona bridge and if Bonner Bridge is of “critical” importance to business and tourism – why not toll it also and/or use local gap funding to pay for it? You could start by charging $10 supplemental fees for deep sea charters!

          ;-)

      • I think your analysis is pretty well on point. Better access means not only to existing development, but also to presently undeveloped land. The issue should be discussed openly.

  2. re: gap funding verses options.

    they’re not mutually exclusive either!

    when the toll study is done and indicates a shortfall, it’s time for the locality to step up and the irony is, ultimately that those who pay the tolls will also end up paying the taxes!

  3. Why bother? Isn’t the rising ocean supposed to swamp the Outer Banks in a decade or so?

    It would take a lot more build-out at that end of the region to generate enough traffic to support a toll project of that magnitude. The kind of development that will not happen ever again. Plenty of special taxes already in place…wasn’t there a ferry once? They could bring that back.

  4. re: why bother.. they would if the state was paying right?

    ferry? I thought bridges were cheaper than ferries, no?

    besides.. the perfect private entrepreneurial enterprise!

  5. DJR,
    Whoa! Don’t you think I don’t know that Oregon Inlet is the only ocean outlet in the northern banks. Shame on you! My point is that Jim had initially suggested that the new Currituck Sound bridge would be a road to charter fishing. Well, the charter boat would probably having to spend a couple of hours chugging along just to reach Oregon INlet and only they could it make it’s way seaward. True you might do some light tackle fishing in Currituck Sound, which is a duck hunting spot.

    Otherwise, give me a break! I too have fished offshore form there. I have also scuba dived a number of times from Hatteras Inlet to wrecks 20 miles offshore.

    You sound like a landlubber to me, Groveton!

    • Then I assume you will be accepting my invitation to brave the November gales and join me tuna fishing this Fall on board the Osprey with Capt. Paul Lester at the helm.

      Pay no attention to the fact that the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in November. The Osprey is a 50′ Ricky Scarborough design built specially for offshore fishing.

      http://theosprey.com/

      If you’d like to “warm up” prior to the Fall, I’d be happy to scoot down to Point Lookout in the Rip Tide to see if we can connect with any of those bull sharks that have being caught there recently.

      Landlubber? Ha. I am the guy Capt. Quint calls when he feels over-matched!

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