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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Letting the Outer Banks go

May is the start of tourist season on the North Carolina beaches, but despite spending millions of dollars every year NCDOT simply cannot keep NC 12 open. Whether one attributes the problems of NC 12 to hurricanes, the natural migration of barrier islands, a rise in sea level because of global warming, or a combination thereof, we face spending over $200 million on NC 12 -- without any guarantee of success! Many scientists argue that NC 12 is doomed regardless of how much money we spend.

In the short run, I believe we should make temporary fixes to NC 12. The time has come, however, to apply tolls to NC 12 as a partial source of revenue for these fixes. If tourists want to drive from Kitty Hawk to Hatteras, they should pay just as if they opt to take an NCDOT ferry from Atlantic to Ocracoke. Let's start with a $10 toll each way at the Bonner Bridge, while allowing for an annual cap of $100 per license plate so as not to screw the permanent residents. Every year, raise the toll by $1. This will give business owners on the OBX a chance to wind up their shops gracefully.

But in the long run, we must embrace the inevitable.

  • Make ferries and boats, not bridges and a continuous NC 12, the way to reach the OBX south of Oregon Inlet. Constant dredging is not cheap, but it's cheaper than roads and bridges.
  • Buy out the OBX property owners in Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, and Avon who are in the rental business. Return those tracts to an undeveloped condition.
  • Support relocation and retraining of OBX permanent residents who depend on the tourism industry and therefore have no economic future if they remain there -- or who choose not to depend on ferries and boats.
  • For the smaller population of OBX permanent residents who stick it out because of historical ties, provide ferry transportation that meets primarily their needs. The smaller number of tourists will get secondary consideration.
This strategy would reposition the OBX south of Oregon Inlet to be halfway between (figuratively speaking) the totally undeveloped Core Banks and the highly developed Kitty Hawk/Nags Head area. It means deliberate and partial depopulation of the OBX, and it means the Bonner Bridge comes down without a replacement. NC 12 would enter history, being replaced by local roads that connect the historic villages. If new inlets open up across Pea Island or Hatteras Island, let them. Every 25-50 years since recorded history began, a storm has cut a new inlet across the OBX somewhere. We can't fight Mother Nature.

Entrenched business interests say that the OBX south of Oregon Inlet cannot exist without NC 12 and the Bonner Bridge. What they actually mean, however, is that their lifestyles and businesses need NC 12 and a bridge. The OBX themselves will do just fine if we let transportation revert to the 1950s before NC 12 and the Bonner Bridge were built.

Mine is a sustainable vision for the OBX. Is it too radical to push for? Maybe. But the only alternative is a giant sucking sound as NC taxpayers prop up the tourism industry. It's supposed to be the other way around.