Debris from old Bonner Bridge will travel roughly 500 miles to reach reefs 10 miles away

Demolition of the old Bonner Bridge is providing concrete chunks for artificial reefs offshore. Tugboats must haul the concrete through ports in Norfolk or Morehead City to get out to the artificial reefs. Oregon Inlet is too shallow for the tugs.

Demolition of the old Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet is taking more time — and money — than expected.

The original plan was to load thousands of tons of concrete debris onto barges and for tugboats to push them about 10 miles through Oregon Inlet to one of four artificial reefs. But the constantly shoaling inlet makes the passageway too shallow for the tugboats — despite efforts to dredge it.

Instead, the barges are making an arduous trip of roughly 500 miles to reach the reefs.

The longer routes have added months and about $5 million in costs to the hauling project, which was initially expected to cost $900,000.

The tugboats need water at least 10 feet deep, said Pablo Hernandez, an engineer with the North Carolina Department of Transportation in charge of the project.

To stay safe, the tugs must push the barges either 255 miles down the Pamlico Sound and through port in Morehead City or go north 215 miles through the Intracoastal Waterway and Norfolk. Then, they travel along the coast to dump the load and make the return trip.

Each journey to Morehead City and back takes three days and costs approximately $50,000 above what it would to go through Oregon Inlet. Each trip through Norfolk and back takes two days and costs an extra $33,000.

Most of the barges make the longer, but easier, trip to Morehead City, Hernandez said. Even then, currents can get treacherous along Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras — slowing progress.

The trip to Norfolk is more difficult as larger tugs and barges cannot safely maneuver through locks and narrow places in the waterway.

“There are a lot of twists and turns in that route,” he said.

A route to Ocracoke Inlet also is too treacherous, and there are no places to stage the barges if bad weather or mechanical problems strike, Hernandez said.

The new $252 million Marc Basnight Bridge was completed last year running parallel to the Bonner Bridge. The old bridge, built in 1963, endured the Outer Banks environment nearly twice its expected 30-year lifespan.

The bridge demolition contract calls for all the concrete to go to the reefs near Oregon Inlet.

The artificial reefs, managed by the state, are made with debris such as old boats, aircraft and concrete. They attract marine life, making them prime fishing areas. But they need debris added as they deteriorate over time and are covered by sand.

Reefs can be an economic driver, attracting anglers to an area for the good fishing. Dozens more reefs are located along the state’s southeastern coast.

Since demolition began in May 2019, 44 loads have gone to the reefs. The entire project will take about 75 loads and conclude next summer, about a year later than expected.

For the first six months, the tugs and barges were able to pass through Oregon Inlet. They carried 27 loads.

The inlet became too shallow last fall. For the past seven months, barges have primarily had to make the longer trips. Sixteen went through Norfolk and Moorehead City. One made it through the inlet in March.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers has two dredges working Oregon Inlet as well as other waterways, Hernandez said. A third is under repair. Between bad weather and other obligations, it is hard to keep the dredges working the inlet.

“They can’t keep up with the shoaling,” Hernandez said.

In an attempt to save time — and about $2 million — the state highway department requested a change to the demolition permit that would allow the barges to unload at reef sites off Carteret County, near the Morehead City port. Then, they could return inland and cut the trip in half.

But local fishing organizations and the Dare County Board of Commissioners oppose that change. The board passed a resolution Monday making clear the county believed the Bonner Bridge debris should all go to the Oregon Inlet reefs.

The reefs near Oregon Inlet have not been maintained well like those near Carteret and the contract was agreed upon by all parties, the resolution says.

The change request must also be reviewed by the Coast Guard, the Corps of Engineers and state environmental agencies.

Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272,

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