Traffic fixes could bring agony before ecstasy: major road projects in the Cape Fear Area for 2017

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WILMINGTON – The population of Wilmington and its surrounding areas have been increasing faster than state and local roadways can handle the influx of new traffic. While there is no immediate solution to the resulting traffic issues in the Cape Fear area, there are several upcoming North Carolina Department of Transportation projects that seek to alleviate the problem. However, first they may cause major headaches.

Three major projects are already underway: the Wilmington Bypass, the Kerr Avenue expansion and a new intracoastal bridge to Topsail.

Wilmington Bypass

This project will connect the John Jay Burney Jr. Freeway – which currently spans 7 miles between Highways 17 and 74 – to the I-140 extension that runs north of Wilmington. I-140 already crosses the Northeast Cape Fear and this expansion would cross the main branch of the river as well, connecting major highways in Brunswick County to I-140 and destinations in New Hanover and Pender County northeast of Wilmington.

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Route for the Wilmington Bypass. (Courtesy of NC DOT)

Part of a larger project to allow Highway 17 to bypass Wilmington, this major section is due to be completed in April of 2018, according to Balfour Beatty Infrastructure, Inc., who are overseeing the $124 million project.

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Work on the bypass bridge over the Cape Fear River. (Courtesy Balfour Beatty)

However, another major part of the bypass – extending Military Cutoff Road to connect with the bypass north of Wilmington – has not yet broken ground. According to the NC DOT, the $51.6 million project should begin construction in late 2017.

Port City Daily first reported on the expansion in 2012, including concerns on traffic, eminent domain seizures and the extension’s impact on housing values as it cuts through the northeast section of Wilmington (you can read that story here). The bypass will likely have a serious impact on traffic patterns.

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Planned extension route (in blue) of Military Cutoff Rd., as it travels from its current terminus at Market Street, through Wilmington, to meet I-140/US-17. (Courtesy NC DOT).

The project also includes an extension to bypass Porter’s Neck. According to the NC DOT, that portion of the project is still in development, in part because the $152 million budget has not yet been funded. (Below: the planned Hampstead Bypass in red, with the Military Cutoff project in blue.)

hampstead-bypass

Kerr Avenue Expansion

The most disruptive aspect of the Kerr Avenue project, the reconfigured intersection with Market Street, lies ahead in early 2017.

The intersection, one of the most dangerous in Wilmington, will no longer allow left turns. The new configuration will re-purpose the existing turn lanes to make Kerr a four-lane route. Left turning traffic from Kerr to Market will use expanded side roads. For example, the new intersection will send those making a downtown-bound left turn onto Market Street from Kerr Avenue through Cinema Drive (which will also connect to Princess Place Drive).

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The future left-turn route heading downtown from Kerr Ave.

When the $22 million dollar project is finished, the expanded four-lane Kerr Ave. will travel from Randall Parkway to the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. The project is currently about 25 percent complete and is expected to finish in September 2019.

Topsail Bridge Replacement

The 60-year-old swivel bridge that connects Topsail to the mainland coast is overdue for repair, according to the NC DOT. The existing bridge also poses a potential hazard in the event of hurricane or super-storm evacuation, where it would be unable to handle emergency traffic. In 2013, NC DOT finalized plans for a new bridge.

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The current bridge to Topsail Island. (Courtesy NC DOT)

Construction on the new bridge began in October of this year, while the old bridge on Roland Avenue is remaining open. The new bridge leaves the mainland about 1,100 ft. south of the old bridge, and will connect with island on S. Topsail Dr., according to NC DOT plans.

The $53.7 million bridge will have a 65 ft. clearance (and thus will not require a draw-bridge section). It will also be unique among intercoastal bridges in the area in offering both pedestrian and bicycle lanes.

Of all the current NC DOT projects scheduled for 2017, the Topsail bridge replacement will likely cause the least headaches. It will also reap serious rewards, eliminating the hourly bridge rotation – to allow passage of ships up and down the intracoastal – that compounded summer traffic.

Below: Artist’s rendering of the new bridge (Courtesy of NC DOT):

topsail-bridge-artist-rendering