MOREHEAD CITY — After years of planning and delays, residents and travelers will soon see signs of progress on the bridge-replacement and roadway project intended to improve the flow of traffic between this community and Beaufort.
The N.C. Department of Transportation is set to open bids this week for the $74 million Project No. R-3307 – otherwise known as the Gallants Channel Bridge project – now on track for completion in late 2017.
NCDOT plans to replace the existing bascule bridge – the Grayden Paul Bridge – with a fixed-span bridge that has a 65-foot vertical clearance for marine vessels and widen Highway 70 to four lanes with a median on new rights-of-way.
“We have the permits in hand for a 65-foot, fixed span,” NCDOT Division 2 Engineer John Rouse said Thursday during the Highway 70 Corridor Commission meeting at the Crystal Coast Civic Center.
The primary purpose of the project is to increase the traffic-carrying capacity of Highway 70 and eliminate delays to vehicular traffic due to bridge openings.
Permits for the design were previously obtained from the N.C. Division of Coastal Management and the N.C. Division of Water Quality.
The contract award for the project, which was originally scheduled for 2012, was delayed while the U.S. Coast Guard studied navigation issues related to the design prior to issuing required permits, which happened in December.
The delay was prompted by comments received from a coalition of marine business owners north of the bridge and area residents, who said NCDOT’s design would have negative economic effects from blocked access to marine services on Core Creek for taller-masted vessels. Some called instead for a new drawbridge to accommodate those taller vessels. The Coast Guard ordered additional surveys of marine traffic transiting Gallants Channel.
NCDOT submitted to the Coast Guard in December 2012 a completed study that showed the 65-foot vertical navigational clearance would handle 99.1 percent of the vessels that now pass through the existing drawbridge. But the Coast Guard asked for more data that covered a longer period of time.
So, a second survey was conducted between Feb. 1 and June 30. Of 13,420 vessels surveyed in the follow-up study, the 65-foot vertical clearance will accommodate 93.3 percent of those between 60.1 and 65 feet in height, according to the report.
Twenty‐four commercial fishing vessels observed a total of 28 times were measured to be taller than 65 feet but were deemed able to lower their outriggers to below that height and were therefore included in the 60.1-65-foot category.
With the additional 3 feet of clearance gained at mean low tide – 68 feet total clearance – the proposed design will accommodate 99.7 percent of vessels 68.1 and 77 feet, according to the survey results.
But Nelson Owens of Beaufort, representing a group called the Gallants Channel Coalition, recently said in an email response to the News-Times’ request for comment that the Coast Guard’s decision was “premature,” based on federal requirements.
“Once again, NCDOT has taken a backward approach to designing a transportation project: They decide what design they want, despite the best interest of the public, then spend years and millions of tax payer dollars trying to justify their decision. It is unfortunate that because of NCDOT’s tyrannical attitude, this project could take the same path as the Bonner Bridge: tied up on court for many years,” he wrote in his email, referring to the Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks. “Both NCDOT and the Coast Guard have exposed themselves to litigation for violating the upstream riparian rights of the public trust.’
Officials said 65 feet is the standard vertical clearance for the Intracoastal Waterway even though the project is near but not on the ICW. Gallants Channel does provide access to a safe harbor of refuge and to the marine service businesses on Core Creek. The ICW travels further west and vessels must clear the Beaufort-Morehead City high-rise bridge, which has a 65-foot vertical clearance.
In addition to the delay for extra study, public comments received during the process also prompted NCDOT to modify the designed access to the Shell Landing subdivision to allow ingress and egress onto Live Oak Street instead of the new Highway 70 bypass.
The Carteret County Economic Development Commission, the Down East Rural Planning Organization and other county and municipal boards approved resolutions of support for the 65-foot fixed-span design.
In addition to replacing the existing drawbridge on new alignment the project will relocate Highway 70 out of downtown Beaufort along Cedar and Live Oak streets.
Meanwhile in Havelock, the planned Highway 70 bypass of that city is far less certain. Because the scheduled let date for construction is fiscal 2016, the project must be assessed according to the state’s new prioritization process provided for in the Strategic Mobility Formula Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law in 2013.
The new formula was intended to address a decline in revenue and increase in the state’s population by allowing NCDOT to more efficiently use its existing funds.
Under the new funding scheme, NCDOT is to work with the N.C. Department of Commerce, local municipalities and metro and regional planning organizations to identify projects that spur economic growth throughout the state through a new data-driven process.
Also related to Highway 70 in Havelock, a required environmental document has been completed for the planned Slocomb Road interchange. Rights-of-way acquisition is set to begin this year with the construction contract scheduled to be let in June 2015, Mr. Rouse said.
Contact Mark Hibbs at 252-726-7081, ext. 229; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter @markhibbs.