Isn't it about time to plan an alternative to NC Highway 12?

Published May 14, 2020

By Joe Mavretic

The northern end of NC highway 12 is at Corolla, NC. This is about 18 miles as the crow flies from where I was born at Powells Point in Currituck County. The southern end of NC highway 12 is at the foot of the Danel E. Taylor Bridge in Sealevel, NC, near where we have a cottage with some other folks. I’m not as old as the first construction on Highway 12 but I am older than its completion date. The last paved portion of Highway 12 was added in 1987 for a total of about 130 miles that includes two ferry trips. I’ve been paying attention to this stretch of coastal road all my adult life.

From its beginning in 1931, Highway 12 has been contentious. So far, the questions have been about when, where, at what cost, and property ownership. Three of many emerging 21st century coastal issues are, “Will rising sea levels wash away the Highway 12 roadbed? If Ocracoke, Hatteras, Frisco, Buxton, Avon, Salvo, Waves, and Rodanthe remain populated, can they be supported without the highway? How much would an expanded ferry system to our Outer Banks cost and where would the terminals be?"

 In 1956, Carl Goerch compiled a few of his recollections about the island/village of Ocracoke in Ocracoke in which he describes much about our Outer Banks before Highway 12. This is a great read for some easy Outer Banks history. In 2016, Dawson Carr published his book NC 12  Gateway To The Outer Banks which traced the history of the highway and Currituck Sound bridges in marvelous detail. Also, in 2016, Stanley R. Riggs and others published The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast which included predictions about our Outer Banks. The most interesting observations about future transportation to/from the several villages along Highway 12 suggest a possible return to the days before the highway was built. 

The primal forces driving this political and economic dilemma are twofold: rising mean high tides and storm surges. Protagonists can debate the fringes of this issue but reasoned science suggests that North Carolina is within two generations of coastal collapse from the Basnight Bridge to Bogue Inlet. Two generations are a long political horizon but that’s not much more than the time it took to complete Highway 12.

Between now and the year 2100, our forty General Assemblies will be forced to deal with the ever increasing cost of maintaining the highway segment from Nags Head to Hatteras and the probable need for additional ferries from inland landings. Our Insurance Commissioners will be required to address the availability of coverage in an area where “Acts of God” are routine (annual) and real property vanishes as shorelines migrate westward. Our other executive branch Commissioners and Secretaries will have an ever increasing list of immediate crises. Coastal Area Management actions will go to our Supreme Court. The Federal Department of Interior will have a boatload of decisions concerning the National Seashore Recreational Area. Writers and reporters will recall the reasoned warnings of Orrin H. Pilkey, Ph.D.

If history is a predictor, over the next fifty years our General Assemblies will have a few bills that will be turned into study committees whose recommendations will be ignored. North Carolina governors will do little except consult with their counterparts in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida about the “coastal problem.” All the east coast states will be looking in vain to the Congress for scientific leadership and money. Every nor’easter, named storm and hurricane will remind us that disaster is on the way and that kicking the can is not a solution. NC Highway 12 is going, going, gone!

If you live east of US Highway 17 today, do not be concerned! You don’t have to think much about coastal flooding and NC Highway 12. But, the science isn’t flawed, and the forecasts are accurate. Every twenty years the high water mark will creep up about a foot…so, about four feet higher by 2100. If your grandchildren choose to live east of US Highway 17, anywhere the current elevation is six feet or less, when they look toward the sunrise they will see marsh grass. 

The 2020 hurricane season begins the first of June and, if this is just a "normal" year, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) will spend several million dollars repairing one or more breaks in Highway 12. Coastal tourism will be shut down for a few days and medical services will be compromised. Emergency plans will be activated and the media will give us a week of wind and water drama. Tourists will grouse about evacuation routes and coastal merchants will lament their loss of revenue. Later some meteorologist will compare the velocity and damages to Hazel, Irene, Fran, Floyd and Florence. From now on, every year that big storms come ashore along our Outer Banks, the disruptions will become more severe and the highway repair costs will mount.
Isn’t it about time to begin to plan an alternative to Highway 12?