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Members of the regional Transportation Advisory Committee remain reluctant to commit funds for a proposed pedestrian bridge across South College Road, intended to help UNCW students more safely cross the busy divided highway.
At their monthly meeting Wednesday, members of the committee—the governing body of the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization—tabled for one more month a request to commit $320,000 in available funding toward planning and design of the pedestrian bridge, which would cross the six-lane highway near its intersection with Randall Parkway.
As they did two months before, members cited a lack of commitment from the UNCW Board of Trustees—which the committee acknowledged has not met since May and won’t again until August—as reason to doubt that the bridge, with a price tag of at least $3 million, would ever be built.
The City of Wilmington has already committed $600,000 to the project, providing what would be a required local match. Laura Padgett, who represents Wilmington City Council on the committee and serves as its chair, noted that while casting the sole dissenting vote against the delay—contending that UNCW cannot know how much funding to commit until the bridge is able to be designed.
Padgett went on to say the bridge is not a UNCW project, but rather a city-initiated project that must go through the MPO.
“The city has expressed some interest in putting money into the project, but it is properly not a City of Wilmington project. It is properly an MPO project,” she said.
Woody White, who represents New Hanover County commissioners on the committee, reiterated his opposition to the project, which he said does not have broad support from the community.
“I’m unconvinced this is anything that needs to be built here, from a personal perspective,” White said. Noting students have access to, and pay fees for, the Seahawk Shuttle, White added that the committee does not know the bridge’s exact location or cost, contending then that it’s reasonable to ask the university for a certain level of funding commitment.
“If it is ever built, what’s the enforcement mechanism? Are we going to have folks crossing who aren’t using it? There are so many unanswered questions,” White said.
Padgett maintained the answers to such questions could only come by funding the project’s planning and design.
“Nobody knows how much it’s going to cost until it’s designed,” Padgett said.
In May, the committee held off including the bridge in a list of projects eligible for the latest round of STP-DA funds, or Surface Transportation Program Direct Apportionment funds, which are divvied up among pedestrian, roadway, transit and intersection projects, with pedestrian projects receiving the largest piece—50 percent—of the funding pie.
The bridge ranked highest among projects requested by MPO members, based on criteria that gauged such things as safety, constructability and supplemental funding sources.
Other projects considered include a multiuse path for Old Fayetteville Road in Leland, with a price tag of $190,000; a walkway under the Heide-Trask Drawbridge at Wrightsville Beach ($560,000); and the Island Greenway and Harper Avenue bike paths planned on Pleasure Island ($140,483).
Those three projects were included in a list the committee approved in May, along with a project to widen Main Street in Navassa to accommodate bike lanes ($360,000) and improvements to the intersection of Wrightsville and Greenville avenues in Wilmington ($340,000).
Add to that a contribution to Wave Transit of nearly $470,000, and the overall amount of allocated funds totals just over $2 million.
But the committee held off committing the $320,000 for design of the pedestrian bridge, despite its ranking at the top of the list. That decision followed comments from White and Michael Lee, the area’s representative on the state Board of Transportation, both of whom cited reservations about the project.
Lee said he’d heard that the board of trustees was not committed to contributing funding for the bridge, while White said he’d heard concerns that the project could essentially open the door to the university expanding across College Road, taking up land that could otherwise add to the commercial corridor.
“I don’t know about the pushback on the other projects, but there’s tremendous pushback on this one,” White told the committee in May.
Reiterating Lee’s concern that UNCW had not committed to funding the project, White added: “If that were shown to be wasted, we would have a $320,000 regret.”
Committee members agreed to keep the project off the list until it heard from the university. Said Bill Sisson, a Wrightsville Beach alderman: “I want to hear from the players before we do anything.”
Bridging the gap
In a letter dated June 13, UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller wrote Mike Kozlosky, director of the MPO, to convey the university’s commitment to the project.
“The university has a long-standing interest in this project, and we continue to be fully committed to working collaboratively with the City and other partners to plan and develop the project,” Miller’s letter reads.
“As a partner in this project and subject to the approval of the UNCW Board of Trustees, the University does expect to contribute resources to the pedestrian bridge. We look forward to working with you to develop a design concept and funding model that we can insert into our budget and facilities planning process.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, however, committee members said the letter lacked specificity, and noted it did not come from the board of trustees.
“This letter really doesn’t answer any of those concerns,” White said, adding that he wondered what the debate would be if the board considered funding. That debate, he said, could occur at the board’s August meeting, which Sisson noted is prior to the committee’s next meeting.
Sisson motioned to decide the funding issue once and for all at that committee meeting, scheduled Wednesday, Aug. 28. The rest of the committee in attendance agreed—except for Padgett, who voted against the motion.
Noting she had talked with Chancellor Miller in a meeting that included the chairman of the board of trustees, Padgett told the committee: “They are very anxious to see this built out of safety concerns for their students. It would serve apartment complexes already established on the other side of College Road.
“There is a safety concern for people. They don’t have a safe way to get from where they now live to where they need to go to get to class.” Responding to White as to whether the bridge would be used, Padgett added: “If it’s a safety issue, students will use it.”
Padgett acknowledged there is a campus shuttle, but she said there are students who choose to walk or bicycle to class. For them, she said: “There is no good designated crosswalk without bringing traffic to a halt, for one thing. The point of this is the safety of people in our community trying to get from one point to another.”
White maintained he had heard no discussion of possible alternatives, such as whether a tunnel under the road would be easier, and “more aesthetically pleasing.”
“I have heard no consensus on this from this board, from UNCW, from the community,” White reiterated. “Erecting a bridge over a huge road like that is a big deal. I don’t need a design to know what it looks like. I think before we spend that kind of money, we should find consensus on whether that’s something the community wants to do.”
Sisson said he appreciates the need but would like to see a formal request from the university.
“God knows how many lives have been saved by the one that serves New Hanover High School,” he said. “I’m not concerned with whether it would be used, but I do think some sort of more concrete resolution from the board of trustees of UNCW is in order.”