For 56 years, the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge spanned Oregon Inlet, connecting people with Hatteras Island. Opened in 1963, the bridge replaced a ferry system that could carry a maximum of 2,000 people per day. The Bonner Bridge would eventually see more than two million cars per year.
The bridge was built with a 30-year lifespan. Unfortunately, the replacement of the bridge would find itself in, what Natalie Kavanagh calls “a federal gridlock,” for decades.
“About 2006, we began The Citizens Committee to Replace the Bonner Bridge,” Kavanagh, a Hatteras native, says.
The group, which was formed by Dare County, included business owners and community leaders. Its goal was get the replacement project moving. Kavanagh, along with Beth Midgett, were involved in the committee before branching out to form the nonprofit, grassroots advocacy group dubbed Bridge Moms.
“Bridge Moms formed from comments that moms had made at a public comment hearing for North Carolina Department of Transportation. Beth heard what we were all saying, got the idea to look at it from the angle of public safety, gathered us moms together and began the letter writing campaign,” she says.
“We didn’t know how it would be received, but it was received very well by our local officials, our state officials, and our federal representatives. They were able to take those letters and use them as tools to help break the gridlock.”
“The core group, myself, Beth Midgett — she was our fearless leader — my mom, Susie Perry, and a handful of other women started it up,” says Kavanagh. “Between public meetings, Facebook, emailing, just talking to our friends in the grocery store and post office, we were able to gather hundreds of letters to send.”
Initially met with some skepticism by others, “they soon realized how passionate these moms were about this cause and got behind it very quickly,” she says. “The safety rating for the bridge had just been downgraded to a 4 out of 100 and that got a lot of people’s attention.”
Then, on Wednesday, August 1, 2007, under the weight of rush hour traffic, the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, collapsed into the Mississippi River when its central span suddenly gave way. More than 100 vehicles were involved, falling as much as 115 feet. Thirteen people lost their lives in the collapse. The bridge had previously scored a 50 out of 100 possible points and been determined as “structurally deficient.”
“That being in the public eye got a lot of attention,” Kavanagh says. “We didn’t want to tell people that our bridge was unsafe. We were very clear that the message was: If we do not get started on this bridge now, then it will become unsafe, NCDOT will have to close it, and we won’t have access to the island.”
The Bonner Bridge did see a closure due to safety concerns. In December 2013, a routine inspection showed areas where sand had eroded from the pilings supporting the bridge, causing the bridge to be closed for 12 days while sand was dredged to fill the gaps.
“There were hold-ups because there were decisions that weren’t being made or weren’t being able to be made by the officials in charge of it. There were hold-ups with agencies. There were hold-ups with decisions on what kind of bridge we should have,” she says. “I think what Bridge Moms really did was spearhead a focus on ‘let’s just get it done and make these decisions, we don’t have time to mess around with this’.”
Kavanagh credits Beth Midgett with keeping morale up through the years.
“She really is the one that drove this whole project, she’s the one that gets the pat on the back. She kept us all motivated and moving forward,” she says. “Every milestone that we hit was a celebration.”
Eventually, the project progressed beyond what Bridge Moms could do.
“Bridge Moms was very central to the middle of the project, and there were many people who worked on it beforehand and there were many people who worked on it afterwards. We were happy we were able to be there when they needed us in the middle.”
On March 8, 2016, ground was finally struck for the construction of a new bridge.
On Feb. 25, 2019, the new 2.8 mile Oregon Inlet bridge — the first bridge in the state built with stainless reinforcing steel — opened to vehicular traffic. At its highest point, the roadway and bridge — named for former N.C. Senator Marc Basnight — rises 90 feet above the water.
“The day that it opened, I called Beth Midgett, and I called my mom, and we got in my car with my two twin five-year-old boys, and we drove up there just so we could drive over it,” Kavanagh gushes, adding the experience was “bridge euphoria.”
“When we asked for help, our officials — local, county, state, and federal — listened. Not only did they listen to our plea for help, they did something about it,” she says. “They did not just make us a functional bridge, they made us a beautiful bridge. I’m very proud of it.”