SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Following a Raleigh trip to advocate for local priorities, New Hanover County’s newest commissioner said more work needs to be done before a solution can be reached on funding the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
For North Carolina Association of County Commissioners Advocacy Day, commissioner Dane Scalise made the trip to meet with Rep. Deb Butler, Sen. Michael Lee, Rep. Ted Davis, Rep. Charlie Miller, North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Elizabeth Biser and representatives from Gov. Roy Cooper’s office.
“Really, we’re a county that is beneficial to the whole region, and the whole state because folks come to New Hanover,” Scalise told media on a call Thursday. “So, we’ve got to get some special attention and I’m not embarrassed to ask for it.”
From funding options for the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, recurring money for beach nourishment and infrastructure, to mental health strategies and PFAS remediation, Scalise said the five-member commission is in agreement on what’s important to the county.
The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is one. Over the last few years, local officials have been trying to find a way to fund the project, which didn’t qualify based on the state’s data-driven formula for prioritization through the department of transportation. Scalise said he was in Raleigh to continue touting the benefit of putting the bridge in the NCDOT’s 10-year funding plan.
The 1969 bridge is reaching the end of its usable life, carrying more than 70,000 vehicles on its failing infrastructure daily; NCDOT estimates the number to reach 81,900 by 2045. It’s costing the state at least half-a-million dollars annually in maintenance. While he said New Hanover representatives are well aware the bridge needs replacing, Scalise’s takeaway was the state wants to see a variety of options come from local officials, before committing to a particular funding avenue.
“They wanted us to do the hard work at the WMPO level and then bring it back to them and say, ‘Here are the options that are available. Here are the different ways that it can be funded. Will you, please, help us?’” Scalise said. “And they said they would, but they want to see us do that work in the first place.”
After rejecting an unsolicited proposal for a potential tolling option in July 2021, the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization approved a resolution in February 2022 to “consider all possible options” for how to go about paying for a new bridge.
The following month, NCDOT laid out a three-pronged approach: traditional delivery, meaning state funding; conventional toll; or alternative delivery, such as an innovative solution from an outside source.
In October, NCDOT allocated $2 million toward studies underway that would evaluate the potential impacts of a toll. The funding also will be used to start environmental assessment and keep the ball rolling.
“I know that we’re doing it,” Scalise said, “but we’ll keep doing it, and we’ll keep presenting the information to them until we get the answer that we want.”
He said it’s not “negotiable”; a new bridge is needed.
Scalise was also passionate about his advocacy for additional resources toward mental health and substance abuse. He touted the county’s “skin in the game” to fund The Healing Place, a 200-bed recovery center, which opened Feb. 1.
“We’re trying to explain to folks that this is the way that you have to address this, you have to face it head on; you have to spend some money on this,” he said. “The people who are suffering from drug addiction, mental illness, they need assistance. And we have an obligation as members of government, local and state, to help them.”
The county invested $24 million in the construction of the treatment center. Scalise said commissioners are seeking to partner with the state on additional strategies to tackle mental health concerns for New Hanover residents. He did not provide further details upon inquiring if the county is looking to partner on more facilities of this nature.
“What we’re saying is let’s leave no stone unturned right here,” Scalise said. “We’ve got to stay laser-focused on this. We need to appropriate some money that goes directly to this item.”
In New Hanover County, the rate of overdose deaths is 41.4 per 100,000; higher than the state average of 38.5, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. The county also has a larger percentage of residents receiving opioid pills than the statewide average.
Last year, there were 526 overdoses through November, according to the county’s data.
Also, on the topic of residents’ health and well-being, Scalise brought up keeping the state focused on providing the cleanest drinking water for people in the community.
When asked about legislation as it relates to PFAS and if the Cape Fear representatives Scalise met with spoke favorably on getting new bills passed, the commissioner said it’s “a moving target.”
Both Rep. Butler and Sen. Lee have introduced bills this year to assist with monitoring contamination and researching the health effects of PFAS, found in the Cape Fear River in 2017. Both would infuse multi-millions of dollars into research and go so far as banning the manufacturing of certain chemicals.
“We’ve got filters in place, we’re making efforts,” Scalise said, referring to Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s $50 million investment. “So we don’t want the public to be afraid about where we are now versus where we were before. But we can’t consider the book closed.”
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