A federal appeals court upheld on Thursday the decision by state and U.S. transportation officials to build a toll bridge connecting North Carolina's mainland and the northern Outer Banks.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, agreed with a 2021 trial court ruling that sided with the state Transportation Department, the Federal Highway Administration, and agency officials seeking to construct the Mid-Currituck Bridge.

The proposed 7-mile, $500 million project includes a 4.7-mile toll bridge crossing the Currituck Sound between Aydlett and Corolla. Proponents say it would benefit Outer Banks residents and vacationers, particularly during hurricane evacuation. It also would ease traffic at the only other sound crossing — the Wright Memorial Bridge linking Kitty Hawk and Point Harbor.

Citizens' advocacy and wildlife groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center sued in 2019. They argued the agencies didn't follow the rules in making its decision, specifically with the required environmental analysis.

Writing the unanimous opinion, Circuit Judge Albert Diaz agreed with the decision by U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan. Diaz wrote the agencies didn't need to file a supplemental environmental impact statement to the one originally completed in 2012 after project funding delays. Instead, a statement reevaluation by the agencies found no significant issues.

The plaintiffs argued that sea-level rise and lower traffic forecasts for the bridge in part warranted another deep examination. How the agencies examined a “no-build” alternative to constructing the bridge also didn't violate federal law, Diaz wrote.

The Southern Environmental Law Center diminished Thursday's ruling, saying the 2012 statement is so outdated that federal regulations require additional scrutiny. The group said the project cost, which it tagged at $602 million, remains unfunded and the project lacks several other permits.

“North Carolina has many unmet transportation needs along its coast, but the Mid-Currituck Bridge is not one of them,” said Kym Meyer, a Southern Environmental Law Center attorney who argued the case before the panel in December. “We will continue to work to ensure that North Carolina money is not wasted on this costly, unwise project."

The state Department of Transportation and state Turnpike Authority — which manages toll projects — are pleased with Thursday’s decision, authority spokesperson Logen Hodges wrote in an email.

A Department of Transportation webpage highlighting the project lists the construction start and completion dates as yet to be determined. The schedule and next steps will be evaluated over the coming weeks, Hodges said.

The project would be paid for with tolls and other revenue bonds, state matching funds, and federal loans, according to the agency.

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