Standing Tall in the Harshest Environments

The 2.4-mile, 5,000-car-per-day Herbert C. Bonner Bridge in North Carolina is a feat of engineering. Located in the highest risk area for storm-based natural disasters along the eastern seaboard, the bridge has stood tall against some of the most powerful hurricanes and tropical storms to hit the nation since the 1960s.

While the bridge has been repaired many times, we're helping to plan a replacement solution to provide safe and reliable access to North Carolina’s Outer Banks for decades to come.

Fighting Nature at Every Turn

The Bonner Bridge and associated highway (NC 12) are integral North Carolina infrastructure components. Used by tourists traveling to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Outer Banks, and the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, along with residents who commute to and from work and school, it's the highway connection between the North Carolina mainland and Hatteras Island. By virtue of its location, both the bridge and the connecting NC 12 roadway are subject to an extreme coastal environment.

Hurricanes and nor’easters frequently damage the bridge and the NC 12 roadway; most recently, Hurricanes Irene and Superstorm Sandy both caused the roadway to be closed for weeks at a time while extensive repairs were made. When NC 12 is closed, the only way to access Hatteras Island is via an emergency ferry—turning a 20 minute drive into a two-and-a-half-hour detour—effectively isolating Hatteras Island and its residents from critical services.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) has kept the Bonner Bridge and NC 12 operational while a group of planners (myself included) have worked to determine an appropriate long-term plan for both the bridge and a 12-mile section of roadway to the south. After a quarter century of preparation, the first phase of the project—the long-awaited replacement of the Bonner Bridge—is going to construction.


25 Years in the Making

The planning that began 25 years ago focused on designing a project that took into account shoreline erosion and potential storm damage while minimizing impacts to the environment and community. Planners anticipated changes to the Oregon Inlet, but environmental conditions throughout the study area have changed almost every year.

In 2010, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and NCDOT selected a plan to replace the Bonner Bridge with an adjacent structure before implementing phased roadway improvements. Shortly thereafter, NCDOT awarded a $215.8 million replacement contract for the project's first phase; the Bonner Bridge replacement. That same year, Hurricane Irene passed over Hatteras Island, leaving a brand new inlet and two breaches in the road just south of the bridge. While an event of that magnitude was never intended to dictate the schedule for the project's second phase, previous decades of study allowed NCDOT to move forward quickly with long-term roadway repair plans.


A Testament to Perseverance

On March 8, I was honored to attend the groundbreaking ceremony celebrating the start of construction for the new Bonner Bridge. I have spent more than 10 years on this project (first at NCDOT and now with Dewberry), and I look forward to celebrating future bridge construction milestones. As this phase of the project begins, we planners are continually responding to the changing environment to identify better ways to design resilient, yet minimally impactful, infrastructure in a location that includes federally owned lands, an historic wildlife refuge, and a barrier island that is home to threatened and endangered species and a unique island culture. Even now, we're forecasting shoreline change for the next 50 years and will use that information to determine where roadway improvements will be needed.

Though the end of this project is in sight, its successful completion will continue to require great innovation and cooperation. Our goal has always been to design improved transportation infrastructure that won't require excessive state and federal repair funds after every nor'easter. When complete, the Bonner Bridge will stand as a testament to our industry's dedication to creating resilient infrastructure—even in the harshest environments.

  • Beth Smyre
    Beth Smyre
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