By Rob Morris on April 4, 2010
Generally, by 6 p.m. or so it’s stacked up about halfway across the Wright Memorial Bridge, the only link from the Currituck County mainland to the Outer Banks. Get there earlier in the day and forget it.
One Saturday — I don’t remember if it was after a golf trip — I hit the backup in Grandy, about 14 miles west of the bridge. Traffic moved in fits in starts in delayed reaction to the light cycles on U.S. 158 on the other side of the bridge. I lost track of how long it took to get home.
Last week, the North Carolina Turnpike Authority released a draft environmental impact statement for a mid-Currituck bridge that would cross over to Corolla from the mainland. While it contained no startling new information, it was another important step in getting the project, and traffic, moving. The bridge, according to the study, would cut the trip between Hampton Roads and Corolla to 80 minutes, about half the time it takes now without the traffic jams.
More important, at least for people like me, is that it will divert some of the traffic away from the Wright Memorial Bridge.
A big reason for the Saturday backups is that only way to the northern Currituck beaches is to cross the Wright Memorial Bridge, drive past Kitty Hawk and take a left on N.C. 12 through Southern Shores and Duck and back into Currituck County.
By my calculations, there’s probably a 50-50 chance that the mid-Currituck bridge will be built by the projected late-2014 opening date. The Virginia Dare Bridge on U.S. 64 to points west seemed to sail through the permitting process. On the other hand, the Bonner Bridge replacement is still stalled for yet another environmental study.
One thing the Currituck bridge has going for it is that it won’t bother federal land. It also would be the state’s first public-private partnership for a major transportation project. It would use tolls to pay back bonds and federal loans rather than funding from vehicle and fuel taxes. The legislature has already authorized $15 million a year for debt payments not covered by the tolls.
As good as a new bridge sounds, I’m not convinced that it’s the ultimate solution to traffic jams. Once two lanes, the Wright Memorial Bridge became four after a parallel span was finished in 1995, the same year the Federal Highway Administration said it intended to conduct the first environmental study of a mid-Currituck bridge.
Now, the traffic jams are back, although that has as much to do with the popularity of the Outer Banks and poor planning along U.S. 158 just east of the bridge. There, travelers hit a stretch of traffic lights, two shopping centers, a Home Depot, a Walmart and a spanking new ABC store.
While an interchange is planned on U.S. 158 on the Currituck mainland and the approach to the new bridge, I worry that another potential bottleneck looms. There will be tollbooths, and the bridge will be only two lanes.
Back in the old days — which really weren’t all that long ago — backups in roughly the same area were a fact of life. U.S. 158 was two lanes then, and traffic would routinely stack up at the drawbridge in Coinjock. A soaring span over the Intracoastal Waterway took care of that problem. But farther north, even with the Chesapeake Expressway, backups are now routine on Saturdays as traffic crawls through Moyock at the state line.
There are just too many people and not enough pavement.
I hope the new bridge will make the trip to the Outer Banks more pleasant and ensure that families can get out safely if a hurricane threatens. In the meantime, if the old golf group ever gets going again, I’ll lobby for the competition to be on Sundays.