NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A new vision is in the works for the future of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
Though still in its infancy, the Historic Wilmington Foundation has identified a possible adaptive reuse for the aging infrastructure, eligible to be listed on the National Historic Registry.
HWF executive director Travis Gilbert shared his proposal Friday with the Eagles Island Task Force to turn the bridge into a pedestrian park once replaced. Plans haven’t been fully fleshed out yet as to what the park would include, as the idea is in a preliminary stage.
However, it would impact Eagles Island, which is why Gilbert thought the audience was a good starting point to gauge public feedback on the plan.
“It’s the Historic Wilmington Foundation’s opinion that the bridge is now a local landmark, a staple, one of the visuals that creates the identity of Wilmington and our region,” Gilbert said. “Many communities across the country have similar bridges that are eligible for the National Register and have been adaptively reused because they were such integral parts of the identity of the communities.”
He pointed to the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that opened in 1993 as a pedestrian walkway connecting two areas of attractions. People can rent the space and it’s often used for farmers markets and community gatherings, Gilbert said.
A walkway also exists over the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, New York, and was turned into a recreation area in 2009; data from 2017 shows it served 590,000 visitors.
The Purple People Bridge in Cincinnati, Ohio, is a collaboration between two states as it connects Newport, Kentucky, with the Ohio city. It opened in 2006 after a $4 million restoration and received funding by the Kentucky legislature. It’s maintained as a joint property between the city of Newport and South Bank Partners.
“In each case study, federal and state funding was identified and offered for the realization of these vision documents for pedestrian linear bridges,” Gilbert confirmed.
He is still researching where the money comes from for continued maintenance on the referenced pedestrian bridge examples.
In April, HWF, the state historic preservation office and other partners, examined the historical significance of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. It concluded the structure, currently considered a contributing resource to Wilmington’s historic district, holds historical importance.
“This bridge is significant and has enough integrity to be individually listed,” Gilbert said.
He noted it’s the most notable moveable bridge constructed in North Carolina from the early 1950s to the late 1970s and includes the state’s first vertical lift span.
A historic designation means the bridge could receive environmental review process protections that could be eligible for federal funding.
“The federal government has an obligation to ensure no adverse effects occur to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge now that it’s eligible” Gilbert said. “And if adverse effects are identified, the federal government would have to mitigate or minimize those effects.”
New Hanover County Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor Evan Folds, also an Eagles Island Task Force member, was on board with the plan.
“It’s very exciting and fits into our purview of interest,” Folds said during the meeting.
He added his friends in Chattanooga rave about the Walnut Street Bridge and Folds offered to collect feedback from residents on their experience.
“Sign us up, as far as I’m concerned,” Folds said.
‘It’s like an odd dance’
Two years ago, the North Carolina Department of Public Transportation released a feasibility study for replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. It includes four options: a 65-foot fixed span, a 135-foot fixed span, a 65-foot moveable span and a 65-foot moveable span with a rail component.
The cost estimates, though now outdated, ranged from $241.2 million to $899.6 million.
Gilbert said HWF is advocating for option one: a 65-foot fixed span, also the least expensive.
“It would have the least detrimental or adverse effect to both the Wilmington Historic District, the USS North Carolina and Eagles Island,” he said.
The footprint of land needed for traffic to enter and exit for a new bridge is significantly smaller compared to other options.
“If we look at the 135-foot fixed, the on and off ramps are extending well beyond the existing footprint and at this point, would cause unknown adverse effects to these historic resources,” Gilbert said. “I define natural resources as also cultural resources.”
HWF works closely with conservationists to preserve the historic, cultural and environmental integrity of the area and, as such, is a part of projects’ environmental review processes.
However, the concept to transform the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge into a pedestrian park, connecting downtown Wilmington to Eagles Island, could only come to fruition with help from the U.S. Coast Guard.
A 65-foot fixed bridge would require a permit from the federal agency, which would also need to amend the “reasonable need of navigation” to 65 feet. The current bridge has a vertical lift component allowing for boats up to 135 feet to pass through. The replacement bridge option HWF supports means no vessels larger than 65 feet could pass north of the bridge.
There is one identified business — not named during the meeting — that would be impacted by the change north of the bridge. It requires the 135-foot clearance for certain vessels to reach it; however, a discussion on how to tackle that issue is still a ways out.
Task force member Paul Pascarosa was concerned about the implications of pushing out a local business and pointed to the lack of vacant industrial land south of the bridge for the company to move to.
“I don’t think anyone’s proposing to put a business out of business,” Folds said.
Gilbert explained there are acquisition steps NCDOT could undergo to accommodate the business financially to move or accept smaller boats. The state transportation department would be the appropriate entity to move forward with that procedure, but those conversations are premature, he added.
“How do you prove to the U.S. Coast Guard the need?” Folds asked.
Gilbert replied that obtaining permitting and finding a solution for the company would have to occur somewhat concurrently.
“Results of one affect the results of another,” he added. “If DOT can get a nod from the community defining a reasonable need at 65 feet, they may feel more comfortable to begin a right-of-way acquisition that would affect Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Coast Guard’s public outreach campaign. It’s like an odd dance.”
The reason HWF is advocating for the less expensive bridge replacement is to help push it through the state’s scoring process for statewide projects.
The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge has not yet been replaced because it does not score high enough on the NCDOT’s data-driven formula, which ranks projects for funding in its 10-year State transportation Improvement Plan. Money needs to be identified but also the project has to reach an agreed upon design level before proceeding.
“I don’t want to speak for DOT, but one can naturally assume, the cheapest option is preferred for DOT because it will score higher on the STIP and result in a faster turnaround,” Gilbert said. “And there is a significant amount of infrastructure funds from the federal government.”
However, the grants available for bridge replacement require shovel-ready projects before doling out money.
“The Department is also looking at the possibility of grants and is pursuing an environmental study to obtain the merger document to make this a project-ready candidate for future grants,” NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland told Port City Daily.
Local leaders have been researching alternative solutions on how to fund its construction, including tolling, which has received pushback from many residents and officials.
NCDOT allocated $2 million to feasibility studies in October, still underway. A traffic and revenue study is being conducted that evaluates what a potential toll could look like and how traffic would be diverted if a toll were enacted. The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization would have to vote to approve this option.
Task force member Gary Anderson inquired about funding for the replacement of the bridge, as well as restoring the current one as a park.
“It would be wise to package these altogether,” Gilbert replied. “There is great capacity within DOT when completing federal infrastructure grant applications for any replacement, so to take advantage of that in house would be ideal. Those are conversations we’ve not had, as to whether there’s even an appetite to take on that work.”
Catch up on previous reporting on the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge here.
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