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Monday, May 20, 2024

NCDOT to begin improvements on northern College Road by 2026

The intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and College Road late Friday morning. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and College Road will receive interchange improvements in the next few years. Within the project, additional work will be done on College Road, including roadway upgrades from Market to Gordon. (Port City Daily/file)

WILMINGTON — One of the city’s most traffic-logged roadways, and one of the only allowing for north-south travel, will see some extra improvements sooner rather than later.

North Carolina Department of Transportation division 3 engineer Chad Kimes said last week at the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting that significant upgrades were added to a College Road project, funded within the state’s long-term plan. Construction is slated to begin in 2026, following any needed right-of-way acquisitions.

READ MORE: Hampstead Bypass, S. Front Street widening projects could be completed sooner than expected

Additional NCDOT Division 3 money has become available from pushing back the start dates of other projects, such as the Independence Boulevard Extension. This allowed for three more College Road areas to be covered, due to rebalancing the funds. 

NCDOT’s Strategic Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) had identified six upgrades along College Road, though not all were funded. One includes intersection and road improvements along College Road, from the overpass at Market Street past King and Ringo drives up to the Gordon Road exit. 

Now they’re being included in changes coming to the intersection of College Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. The work will widen College from two lanes to three in both the northbound and southbound lanes. Originally, construction was to start in 2024 but has been delayed due to funding.

The plans were combined in an effort to reduce costs.

According to NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland, the agency reviewed alternatives for College and MLK intersection project, which has nearly 50,000 vehicles travel through daily. But changes at other College Road intersections were needed to ensure the College and MLK intersection can function “more efficiently.” 

Those upgrades will take place at Ringo and Kings drives along College Road. “None could be designed without compromising traffic operations and avoiding costly rework,” once reconstruction begins, she said.

By converting the current signals to interchanges, traffic will flow more freely, Haviland said.

WMPO executive director Mike Kozlosky said the improvements would add additional capacity between Gordon Road and Market Street.

“It will help to reduce delay at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and College Road,” he added.

Estimates for the College Road improvements increased from $50.4 million in 2022 to $137.9 million due to the added scope of work. To cover the increase, NCDOT reduced the estimates of future upgrades along College Road from Gordon to New Centre, from $125.8 million to $38.7 million. Official funding will be determined when the STIP is released in a few months.

NCDOT projects it could save $400,000 to amend the scope of work, but it hasn’t bid out construction costs since it must complete right-of-way acquisitions first. Haviland estimates roughly 90 properties will need to be acquired; however, preliminary planning is still underway.

“This will allow Wilmington to get their gateway,” Kimes said last week.

Kimes was referring to College Road being one of three ways to get in and out of Wilmington. 

At the WMPO meeting last week, another College Road intersection was discussed, particularly advancing interchange improvements at Oleander Drive. Last fall, WMPO board members discussed possibly swapping it with changes scheduled for Military Cutoff and Eastwood Road.

In October, WMPO board member and New Hanover County commissioner Deb Hays brought forth the idea, saying Oleander and College had a more dire need. Military Cutoff Road and Eastwood Drive improvements include converting the intersection to a single-point urban interchange, removing the current traffic signal and replacing it with an Eastwood Road overpass crossing Military Cutoff. Ramps to the overpass bridge will accommodate turning traffic.

The project is slated to begin construction in 2025.

Hays reasoned the Drysdale Drive extension at Military Cutoff and Eastwood roads was already underway to grant some relief to congestion. Swapping with Oleander and College, which takes on roughly 68,000 cars daily, would mean the overpass project would be postponed a few years.

“If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said Drysdale could have handled [the traffic] for several more years, but based on the new forecasts, I’m nervous about that,” Kimes told the board.

He pointed to the rapid growth in the Mayfaire area since 2017 reporting an increase in traffic. Military Cutoff and Eastwood handle 63,000 vehicles daily and would be considered “failing” roads by 2032 if nothing was done. As it is, the roadways are considered Level E, an unacceptable level of service.

The downside of swapping the project comes from significantly less funding needed for College and Oleander than Military and Eastwood. If the WMPO had chosen that route, it would have lost out on $28 million for the region. The funding difference between the two projects would go back into the overall STIP, which is statewide. It would not necessarily be used to cover Division 3, or local needs. 

NCDOT will approve the 2024-2033 STIP this spring. Prior to that, municipalities have the opportunity to switch out funded projects and replace them with those not currently funded. The stipulation is they have to come from the same funding source and can’t exceed the project cost by more than 10%. All project swaps are due March 17.

WMPO member and Wilmington council member Neil Anderson said Mayor Bill Saffo “can’t stand the idea” of losing out on $28 million for the region.

“We don’t want to give up any more funds for the county or city with traffic the way it is,” Anderson said to the board Monday. “And I concur.” 

Currently, interchange improvements at Military Cutoff and Eastwood are scheduled for right-of-way acquisition this year, with construction beginning in 2025. If projects were to be switched, it would push the project out by an undetermined timeline.

The board reached the consensus to retain status quo: proceed with funding the $66.4-million design of Eastwood Road to be built overtop Military Cutoff and remove any left turn lanes.

Additional projects are planned for College Road in the future, though they are not funded at this time. 

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