Weekly Briefing

Abandoning serious debate in favor of demagoguery

Bonner Bridge

McCrory administration officials embarrass themselves and the state in Bonner Bridge controversy

Gov. Pat McCrory would do well to study and re-learn a number of basic political lessons if he gets some downtime over the holidays.

He might revisit the notion, for instance, that it’s a mistake in the modern electronic communications era to promise one thing while running for office and then do the direct opposite a few months later. He might also get a brief refresher on the importance of learning the basics of the policies one signs into law and of not turning extended interviews with friendly journalists into little more than gripe sessions. The pitfalls of making claims about being somewhere you really weren’t and of acting like a college boy prankster rather than the elected leader of nine-million people seem worth revisiting as well.

The recent controversy over the Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks in which the Governor and his Transportation Secretary have been personally attacking the lawyers for the Southern Environmental Law Center might also provide a couple of lessons.

Number One might be that it’s a really bad idea for rich guys with big salaries, big houses, big offices, big staffs and big cars who live in big, swanky homes to lambast committed advocates with whom they disagree (as Secretary of Transportation Anthony Tata did last week) as latte-sipping, air conditioned elitists. As Dan Barkin of Raleigh’s News & Observer noted with some apt humor in an excellent article on the subject yesterday:

I would quibble with the air-conditioning comment. Without air conditioning, I doubt IBM would have come south to RTP about the same time the Bonner Bridge was built. North Carolina’s modern economy was built on air conditioning. If I were Tata, I’d stay away from attacks on A/C.”

But the most important and serious lesson that the Governor and his people ought to derive from the bridge controversy is this: When it comes to politics and policy, nothing beats really grasping an issue and engaging in serious, fact-based debate. Oh sure, theater and hyperbole have their place, but at some point you really should know your stuff and your opponents. And trying to get by on clichés and personal attacks can be a big mistake – especially when your adversaries are actually incredibly smart and dedicated people who’ve been immersed in the controversial subject at issue for a hell of a lot longer than you.

The facts and debate at hand

As Barkin’s article deftly explains, the Bonner Bridge controversy is a tough debate over an important subject with imperfect solutions. The hard truth of the matter is that virtually all construction along North Carolina’s fragile Outer Banks is hugely problematic. The barrier islands involved are incredibly vulnerable and subject to rapid change. And as one of the nation’s leading experts on developed shorelines made clear at a recent NC Policy Watch luncheon, this is a situation that is very unlikely to get any better in the decades ahead.

That said, a lot of people live and work on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands and a lot more want to go there for fun, so finding some kind of replacement for the fast-deteriorating Bonner Bridge – the only road leading there now – is unavoidable.

The problem, of course, is that there is a profound difference of opinion as to how to make this happen. Many people – including a lot of people who live nearby – want a replacement bridge built adjacent to the old one. Environmental advocates (as well as some Outer Banks residents), in contrast, have long advocated a much longer, better protected bridge over an alternative route that would, admittedly, cost a lot more.

More than reasonable opposition

This is not an unprecedented debate. Indeed, it’s the same one that Americans have been having about their developed beach communities for decades: Should we opt for quick fixes that cost less in the short run and put things back just like they were before the ocean intruded (as it will continue to do – probably with increasing frequency) or should we opt for alternatives that have a larger upfront cost but that will be much more resilient and long-lasting (and probably cheaper in the long run)?

For the most part, “quick fixers” have prevailed in these debates. Witness the longstanding policy up and down the Eastern Seaboard to constantly “re-nourish” fast-eroding beaches and add ever-more new housing. Witness also the emotionally satisfying, but ultimately fiscally questionable decision of President Obama and Gov. Chris Christie to rebuild the New Jersey shoreline just as it was pre-Hurricane Sandy.

But consider the words of the experts at the Southern Environmental Law Center who have been litigating over the Bonner Bridge replacements and it becomes immediately evident just how serious and expert they are:

“NCDOT’s plan to build new bridges in the exact same places over Oregon Inlet and along NC-12 is going to cause the exact same problems that led to the current bridge closure and recent road closures: the ocean will continue to scour the new bridges and erode the road, NCDOT admits its proposed bridges will end up in the ocean, and the people of Hatteras Island will continue to be stranded by NCDOT’s poor planning for decades to come.

NCDOT’s inability to secure all the necessary permits for its faulty plan to build a new bridge in the same unstable location is delaying construction of any new bridge. In 2003, NCDOT and the Secretary of Transportation warned Dare County officials that if they pushed for a replacement plan that could not receive the necessary permits, it ‘will only cause further delay.’  But NCDOT noted that to get what they wanted, Dare County officials were ‘willing to take the risk that Bonner Bridge might deteriorate to the point that it would be closed to traffic.’

One way around these continuous problems is a more reliable and safer bridge through the Pamlico Sound. NCDOT and other agencies supported such a bridge in 2003 — a bridge that was scheduled to be completed and open to traffic in 2010.  But Dare County officials stopped construction on the project.  The agreement, construction schedule and objection can be viewed here.

We understand that a longer bridge has a higher upfront cost, and repeatedly offered to work with NCDOT to find a way to truly invest in a long-term solution to meet the transportation needs of the Outer Banks for generations to come. During the latest legislative session, we argued for more transportation construction funding to be made available to this part of the state and were disappointed that the McCrory administration did not support that position.”

In other words…

The debate over the replacement to the Bonner Bridge is a serious and tough issue and, as is frequently the case in modern America, not one that lends itself to a swift resolution. For better or worse, arriving at final policy decisions in the 21st Century is extremely messy. Democratic processes take lots of time and the courts frequently take even longer – especially when the stakes are high. Just ask the conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act, who continue to litigate every tiny shred of the new law even after it was approved by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But is this a reason to engage in mean-spirited and personal attacks against dedicated nonprofit advocates? Good lord – the attacks on SELC by McCrory and Tata have led directly to a situation in which SELC staffers are being forced to endure personal threats! This is simply inexcusable. Can you imagine if President Obama launched such personal attacks against the lawyers in the groups challenging his health care law (an issue that, at least, truly is a life and death matter)?

One year ago this week, then-Gov.-elect McCrory took a different and more responsible approach when bomb-throwers in his own party were launching wild and inflammatory broadsides against Gov. Perdue during her administration’s final days. At the time, McCrory’s decision to respect the authority of the outgoing Governor and to avoid ad hominem personal attacks seemed to indicate an intention on his part to take the high road and to focus on the issues. Unfortunately, the events of the past week took his office in an opposite direction and to seldom-plumbed depths.

Let’s hope the man uses the holidays to reflect upon a better and more honorable path.

Photo: Bonner Bridge image by Smkybear licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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