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Tarheel State Receives $110M Federal Grant to Replace Link to Outer Banks

Mon January 23, 2023 - Southeast Edition #3
Raleigh News & Observer & NCDOT

North Carolina received a federal grant in early January that will help it replace the 60-year-old Lindsay C. Warren Bridge that carries U.S. Highway 64 over the Alligator River to the Outer Banks.

The state's Department of Transportation (NCDOT) will use the $110 million grant to build a new 3.2-mi. span that will be both higher and wider than the existing one. It will include 65 ft. of clearance over the navigation channel, jettisoning the swing-bridge that currently brings traffic to a halt when it opens to let boats pass. More than 4,000 vessels travel through the area every year.

The new two-lane bridge, which runs between Tyrrell County and the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare County, is projected to cost $289.5 million and include installation of broadband infrastructure along U.S. 64 from Interstate 95 in Rocky Mount to N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks.

NCDOT plans to begin building the new span parallel to the existing one in 2025.

North Carolina's Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican, announced the federal grant in separate statements Jan. 3.

Cooper described the bridge as a lifeline for people going to and from the state's popular Outer Banks, the thin line of barrier islands stretching 200 mi. south from the Virginia border, past Capes Hatteras, and Lookout to Cape Fear, near Wilmington.

The Alligator River bridge is a key link to the Outer Banks' northern end, from which residents and tourists can reach as far south as Cape Hatteras along N.C. 12.

"It is one of the few options residents and visitors have for accessing our far eastern counties, and this bridge replacement will serve our state for decades to come," Cooper said in a statement. "This is a great example of how President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law helps move along large projects that otherwise would be difficult to fund through traditional means."

The Raleigh News & Observer reported that Tillis, one of 19 Republican senators who voted for the law in late 2021, also took credit for the federal money.

"This grant is a big win for Dare and Tyrrell counties and will ensure a safe and reliable bridge for generations to come," he noted in his own news release. "I am proud to have advocated for this funding and thank local officials in both counties for their tireless advocacy for this grant as well. It's clear that the bipartisan infrastructure law is already bringing major investments to our great state."

New Four-Lane Bridge for Two-Lane U.S. 64

In addition to eliminating the swing-span, the new bridge structure will have 12-ft. travel lanes and something the current bridge does not: 8-ft. shoulders on either side, with room for bicycles, according to NCDOT. Also, the railings along the side of the new bridge will be 4 ft. 6 in. high, compared to the 2-ft. 10-in. railings on the existing bridge.

According to the Raleigh newspaper, the transportation department has long-range plans to finish widening U.S. 64 to four lanes through Tyrrell and Dare counties. But the state will not have money for that project for the near future, said NCDOT spokesperson Jamie Kritzer, and the agency determined it does not make sense to build a four-lane bridge between two stretches of two-lane road.

"While it would be nice to replace the bridge with a four-lane section, it is not financially prudent to do so now when we do not have a timeline for when U.S. 64 will be widened to four lanes in that area," Kritzer wrote in an email to the News & Observer. "Also, the cost would be significantly greater, and we need to balance this project with the other transportation needs in North Carolina."

The current Lindsay B. Warren bridge is a two-lane swing-span bridge that opened in 1962, according to NCDOT. Though maintained, the aging structure experiences occasional technical issues that can force motorists onto a 99-mi. detour north through Elizabeth City.

"This is a big boost for eastern North Carolina," said Win Bridgers, a NCDOT Division 1 engineer. "A new fixed-span bridge over the Alligator River would aid everything from economic development to hurricane evacuation."

Federal Grant Named for NCDOT Engineer

The state agency applied for the federal grant in May. It named its application STERLING (Strengthening Transportation Evacuation Resilient Lifeline by Improving the Network's Grid) in honor of former Division 1 Engineer Sterling Baker, who passed away last April.

"Sterling dedicated his life to NCDOT and the northeastern North Carolina community," said Baker's wife, Elizabeth Mumm Baker. "He would be proud the grant project for this bridge would highlight his work ingenuity and [the] character he showed to get the job done for citizens. It is really special, and his family will be honored that he will forever be part of eastern North Carolina."

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