If a pedestrian bridge for UNCW is ever to be built across College Road, it won’t be for at least another year.
Having learned that the project had failed to progress beyond the university’s board of trustees’ business affairs committee, the Transportation Advisory Committee for the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization voted Wednesday to reallocate funds that would have gone toward design and engineering for the bridge, which was proposed to cross the multi-lane road near its busy intersection with Randall Parkway.
The funds—$320,000 that would have, along with $600,000 from the City of Wilmington, kicked off the $3-million-plus project—will instead be put toward the second phase of a greenway project along Park Avenue.
That project—estimated to cost $400,000—is one of several selected for this year’s allocation of federal STP-DA funds, or Surface Transportation Program Direct Apportionment funds. The pedestrian bridge, proposed by the city, ranked highest among other projects considered. But members of the regional transportation committee, citing an apparent lack of support or commitment from the board of trustees, have been reluctant to commit that initial funding amount.
On Wednesday, the committee reiterated those concerns, though not before Zach Steffey, student body president of UNCW, presented a petition that he said included 246 signatures of students in support of the pedestrian bridge.
Steffey, who as student body president sits on the board of trustees, said he was disappointed the project did not make it out of the business affairs committee last week. Speaking for the 13,700 students who make up the university’s student body, Steffey said the bridge is in fact wanted.
“I know, myself, commuting down Randall Parkway every morning, I see a lot of close calls, especially with the traffic that’s in that area,” Steffey told the committee. “So I feel that it’s very important, from a student perspective and as a representative of the student body, that you hear those concerns and that interest in pursuing a pedestrian bridge at that intersection.”
Committee members replied that if students want the bridge, they should start lobbying now to drum up support for it. Woody White, who represents New Hanover County commissioners on the committee, encouraged that as well, but he reiterated his opposition to the project, stating he had not heard support from anyone for it.
“I think it’s a bad idea. It’ll cost millions of dollars,” White said. “It’s the idea of putting a bridge over a span of the busiest road in this part of the state with no data whatsoever to support that it would ever be used.
“We can make crosswalks safer, for cheaper money. If we’re going to prioritize how we spend our transportation dollars—and I know this isn’t on the priority list, and I understand it’s not a pragmatic way to go about funding—but we ought to figure out how we can put an interchange at I-40 and Martin Luther King (Jr. Parkway)—something that’s going to benefit everyone.”
White said the bridge as proposed would have been a half mile distance from Randall Parkway, contending that students who live along that road would cross at that intersection before they would walk back and forth to a bridge. White said the pedestrian bridge at New Hanover High School was never used until an iron fence was placed in the median to prevent students from crossing Market Street.
“You can force people to use the bridge, but you’ve got to put a fence up, you’ve got to penalize and enforce it,” he said. “To spend that kind of money for the idea of building a bridge—I don’t know how it made it this far; I’m glad the board looked at it, even in a subcommittee meeting. The chairman of the board personally called me and shared a lot of concerns about having a bridge there.”
Addressing Steffey, White added: “Young man, I commend you for coming down here. I was a student body president too, and it takes a lot of guts to come down here and represent your students.”
White added the committee had asked for the board’s comments and the trustees had given them. But Earl Sheridan, who represents Wilmington City Council on the committee, said the project is still worth exploring in the future.
Laura Padgett, who also represents city council on the committee and voted against the committee’s decision to hold off funding for the bridge last month, was not in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting.
“I’ve gone to two universities that had busy streets traversing them, and both of them had some way to get from one side of the street to the other,” Sheridan said, noting the University of Tennessee had a pedestrian bridge and Appalachian State University had a tunnel. “I think it’s an idea that perhaps might have some merit.”
Bill Sisson, a Wrightsville Beach alderman, said he had not received one email in support or opposition to the project. “If we don’t vote to continue this,” he said, “I’d sure hate to see it just disappear from the mix.”
Leland Town Council member Pat Batleman noted the reallocation did not mean the bridge could never be built; it just wouldn’t be built with this year’s share of federal funds.
“It’s not that this won’t ever happen, because we get these funds every year,” she told Steffey. “So you’ve got time to get everyone organized and get your guys out there pitching for it, and bring it back to us.”