SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The region’s transportation planning organization could soon expand its boundaries to include more Pender and Brunswick municipalities. The move would generate additional funding and strengthen regional influence but also increase the competition of local projects.
The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization currently oversees 494 square miles and roughly 280,000 residents.
It encompasses all of New Hanover County, and portions of Pender and Brunswick counties. It includes Wilmington, Leland, Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, Kure Beach, Belville, and Navassa.
As a federally mandated and funded entity, the WMPO provides regional transportation planning and acts as the pass-through for funding local projects. Local jurisdictions pay a percentage toward operations, each dependent on population.
The following are share estimates for fiscal year 2024’s WMPO draft budget from each jurisdiction:
- City of Wilmington (42.13%) — $154,429
- New Hanover County (34.03%) — $124,738
- Pender County (9.48%) — $34,749
- Leland (5.35%) — $19,610
- Brunswick County (3.6%) — $13,196
- Carolina Beach (2.26%) — $8,284
- Wrightsville Beach ( 0.98%) — $3,593
- Kure Beach (0.8%) — $2,932
- Belville (0.77%) — $2,822
- Navassa (0.6%) — $2,200
The boundaries of the coverage area are determined by the U.S. Census and at a minimum must be re-evaluated every 10 years, based on state statute. Following the Census each decade, the WMPO reviews the findings to ensure it’s covering any updated area considered “urbanized.”
At a minimum the metropolitan planning area must encompass the entire urban area defined by the Census, as well as contiguous areas expected to become urbanized within 20 years.
There are 19 MPOs in North Carolina that receive funding based on their urbanized areas.
2020 Census data indicates additional bounds as possible coverage areas for the WMPO. These include more of Pender — Burgaw, Surf City and Topsail — as well as more of Brunswick, to include Boiling Spring Lakes, Southport, Oak Island, Bald Head Island, Caswell Beach and St. James.
Every town mentioned above is covered by Cape Fear Regional Planning Organization, a smaller operation with fewer resources than WMPO. It operates with one staff member and is chartered by NCDOT, receiving only state funds, not federal.
By comparison, WMPO’s jurisdictions can apply for annual grants that are 80% federally funded and require a 20% local match. Each year the organization receives a little more than $5 million for local grants.
READ MORE: 6 regional entities to receive $3.3M to fund transportation improvements
Municipalities have to opt into the WMPO to participate. But it has to be mutually agreed upon by the organization.
Staff identified the pros and cons of expansion.
A positive is added planning to rapidly growing regions, creating more regional collaboration. Specifically, if additional areas of Pender and Brunswick counties were included, there would be opportunities to fund projects along main corridors — U.S. 17 and N.C. Highway 50 to the north and N.C. Highway 133, N.C. Highway 211 and N.C. Highway 87 to the south.
For example, U.S. 17 runs through Hampstead, which is seeing high growth and new development. It’s also highly congested, with NCDOT anticipating an additional 52,000 vehicles traveling in the Scotts Hill area in coming years.
Another pro of absorbing more areas is having additional funding allocated to the WMPO. So, for instance, City of Wilmington paid just over $112,000 for fiscal year 2023. In one project alone it received nearly a million in funds for new traffic signals to be installed on South 3rd Street.
Adding more areas to the WMPO also means underserved regions having a seat at the table. Officials in the municipalitiies could vote on projects that may impact the overall region, such as building a new Cape Fear Memorial Bridge between Brunswick and New Hanover, or the Hampstead Bypass currently under construction between Pender and New Hanover.
The downside to growing the WMPO would be the increased strain on current staff and resources, ultimately leading to more operational costs for the organization.
The WMPO has a staff of 12 and in 2022 alone analyzed 67 traffic impact analyses, reviewed 998 development plans, completed 503 traffic counts and is assisting with 22 local projects through its direct attributable grant funding.
It would also make local projects more competitive, having to vie for scheduling and money within a larger region.
As WMPO board members are representative of their jurisdictions, adding more bodies could “dilute” the voting membership.
City council member Neil Anderson wasn’t too keen on that aspect. The City of Wilmington is the only jurisdiction with two voting members because its population is almost half of WMPO’s overall coverage; the other regions each get one.
“I want to take a regional approach, but if we do this, I would want to look at changing the [membership] set up,” Anderson said.
He noted incorporating more coastal towns comes with larger expenses.
Brunswick County commissioner Frank Williams touted it a good idea. Right now the county is represented by three planning organizations — the WMPO, Cape Fear Regional and Myrtle Beach’s Grand Strand MPO.
“It’s simpler for us to have one or two, but the devil is in the details on how it’s worked out,” Williams said. “We’re open to discussing it.”
Three potential scenarios were identified for moving forward for possible expansion. One would be to grow north to cover the remainder of the Hampstead urban area. This would take in Surf City and Topsail Beach (not North Topsail).
The second would be to expand boundaries west to Columbus County, as well as south to Southport, Oak Island, St. James, and Boiling Springs Lake.
The third option would be a combination of both.
While the WMPO does not have to decide until it adopts its long-range plan in November 2025, WMPO director Mike Kozlosky said it’s important to begin conversations early.
“As we’re getting ready to embark on the long-range plan, if we expand, we would want to incorporate those jurisdictions in it,” he said.
Additionally, as the state looks to update its funding disbursement formula, also population-based, WMPO’s coverage area could come into play.
The first step would be to start a conversation with the prospective jurisdictions and see if there’s support to be incorporated.
“We’re responsible for the expenditure of federal transportation dollars, which would be a huge positive for those folks,” Kozlosky added. “But it comes down to planning, collaboration, coordination. MPOs are set up and tasked with planning in a continual comprehensive and cooperative manner. This would achieve that in my opinion.”
The board will continue to discuss the idea of expanding at its next meeting.
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