- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 13, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A federal appeals court heard arguments Tuesday over the contested replacement of a bridge to much of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Two conservation groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center went before a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They are appealing a judge’s decision last September clearing the way for the replacement of the Bonner Bridge.

An attorney from the U.S. Justice Department and North Carolina’s solicitor general, John F. Maddrey, urged the justices to let the lower court ruling stand.

Attorneys for both sides were questioned repeatedly by the bench throughout the hearing. Rulings typically are issued weeks or months after oral arguments.

The dispute centers on a state plan to replicate the existing 2.5-mile bridge across Oregon Inlet at a cost of $216 million. The bridge is the only span connecting the mainland to Hatteras Island.

The conservation groups oppose that span, backing instead a 17-mile bridge that avoids segments of Highway 12 across Pamlico Sound and around the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. State transportation officials put the cost of the longer bridge at $1 billion.

Opponents also contend that the state Department of Transportation leaves out the cost of moving or maintaining about 12 miles of N.C. 12 through the wildlife refuge. The highway has been breached by new inlets twice in the past several years.

SELC contends the bridge will be useless without additional infrastructure through an eroding, unstable section of the Hatteras Island refuge. They also argue that DOT and the Federal Highway Administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not adequately addressing all alternatives for replacing the Bonner Bridge and maintaining N.C 12.

Julia F. Youngman, an SELC attorney who argued before the three judges, called the proposal “a bridge to nowhere.”

Both sides agreed on one thing, however: “We need to replace the Bonner Bridge,” said Robert Lundman, representing the Federal Highway Administration.

The SELC’s clients are Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

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