SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — An integral Cape Fear project that was tabled after the state doled out millions of dollars in studies has been brought back for consideration.
Though the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Program passed June 6, the next one for 2026-2035 is already being considered. During the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s technical coordinating committee meeting Wednesday, staff discussed its draft list of projects to be submitted to the state for consideration of funding.
WMPO director Mike Kozlosky confirmed the Cape Fear Crossing is in the organization’s long-range transportation plan.
“It’s been a long-term priority,” Kozlosky said. “The priority at this point is the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, but, looking into the future, there is still going to be a need for an additional crossing.”
A 9.5-mile road and bridge to cross the Cape Fear River would connect New Hanover and Brunswick counties. The crossing would be built farther south than the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, near the Port of Wilmington.
In the works since 1993, the project was put on hold in 2019 when it didn’t score high enough in NCDOT’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Program. Up to that point, the state funneled more than $11 million toward a feasibility study, engineering data, and a draft environmental impact statement.
The 1,009-page study found the primary needs for the bridge were to offset traffic deficiencies into Wilmington and aid in freight movements to the port. It also estimated costs at the time to be between $600,000 and nearly $1 billion.
The project, originally called the Southern Bridge and renamed the Cape Fear Skyway in 2005, received pushback from local advocacy groups claiming the state’s findings were flawed and inaccurate. The Southern Environmental Law Center said the study did not properly address traffic, impacted communities or financial viability. The group said NCDOT leaned on outdated sea level assessment data and omitted information regarding air, water, and wildlife quality.
Though the real opposition was from neighborhoods that would have either faced increased traffic or been lost to property acquisition.
Kozlosky said the connector would improve access to the Port of Wilmington and provide an additional evacuation route out of Wilmington. Based on the 2019 draft environmental impact statement, hurricane evacuation times in New Hanover and Brunswick counties averaged 29 hours, well above the state goal of 18 hours. Without an additional bridge, time is expected to increase to 40 hours by 2040.
The WMPO board will have the final say in what makes the list of projects to be submitted to the state’s next STIP, but Kozlosky said the Cape Fear Crossing “warrants a discussion.”
What else is being planned for?
Aside from identifying projects already outlined in WMPO’s long-range transportation plan, the staff met with multimodal partners — Wilmington International Airport, Wave, NCDOT, and local jurisdictions — for input on possible project selection.
Though granted the opportunity to choose up to 120 projects to be scored in NCDOT’s data-driven system, WMPO has a draft list of 60. On that list is rail realignment, six bike ped projects — which will need a 20% match — a third ferry vessel, and nearly two dozen airport projects, among others.
Not on the list, but also to be considered in the next round of funding, is the connection between U.S. 17 and N.C. 133 in Brunswick County and the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
On the draft list are the replacement of other bridges, including Wrightsville Beach’s Heide Trask and Carolina Beach’s Snow’s Cut bridge, an interchange at Old Fayetteville Road and Andrew Jackson highway in Leland, and extending and modernizing Murrayville Road.
Road widening is a common theme in this year’s suggested projects.
Of the 20 roadway projects being considered for submittal, seven would increase the number of lanes along major streets:
- Kerr Avenue from Patrick to Wrightsville avenues
- River Road SE in Brunswick County from U.S. 17 to Jackey’s Creek Lane and from Jackey’s Creek Lane to Rabon Way SE
- Piner Road and intersection redesign at Myrtle Grove Road
- Greenville Loop from Oleander Drive to Pine Grove Drive
- Merge lane of U.S. 421/74/NC 133 and US 17/76
- Independence Boulevard from Carolina Beach Road to River Road
The latter has been a concern for residents of Riverlights who say traffic is increasing at a rapid rate making it dangerous to exit their neighborhoods.
Also being considered is re-establishing a rail connection between Castle Hayne and Wallace. There’s a decommissioned line along the route that CSX has considered restoring in the past.
“It could serve as a freight route, potential passenger route, or both,” Kozlosky said. “It would help facilitate passenger rail back to Wilmington as well as linking to the CSX facility in Edgecombe County.”
In terms of public transportation, Wave is asking for new amenities along four routes, and to buy two paratransit vehicles. It’s the first-year micro-transit projects are eligible within the category for the STIP.
For the ferry division, the WMPO is considering a third ferry vessel, improvements to Fort Fisher’s mooring facility and pedestrian improvements at Fort Fisher
Six bike and ped projects made the cut:
- Central College Road Trail from Gordon Road to Northchase Parkway
- South College Road from 17th Street to Pine Road
- Carolina Beach Road and Antionette Road crosswalk improvements
- Carolina Beach Road and Myrtle Grove crossing improvements
- College Road and Shipping Center Drive crossing improvements in Monkey Junction
- Chappel Loop/Belville Trail extension from Rice Hop to Brunswick Street SE
The preliminary choices will open for a 30-day public comment period in July, following initial WMPO board approval.
The finalized list will be voted on by the WMPO board in August, ahead of the Sept. 29 deadline for submittals. Projects will be scored by the state between October 2023 and March 2024 and compiled into a future STIP. Every two years the projects are reevaluated for funding and scheduling.
“Projects submitted make the universe of projects scored,” NCDOT strategic prioritization manager Brian Wert told the Board of Transportation last week. “If a project isn’t submitted to the process, it has no opportunity to get funded.”
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