WILMINGTON — As local officials continue to mull over options for replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, another firm has thrown an alternative into the ring — one that could potentially save millions combining two major undertakings.
The city paid $200,000 to New York-based consulting firm Hardesty and Hanover to explore design, feasibility and costs for a shared bridge concept that would include both a vehicular and rail component.
The firm worked through five tasks to finalize its results. First, it gathered necessary materials and geotechnical studies, then identified the best combination of a rail and bridge superstructure. Staff then reviewed various design elements to analyze the pros and cons of both options, followed by cost estimates and a final report.
Hardesty and Hanover Carolinas Regional Manager Rodger Rochelle presented the company’s findings to the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Wednesday, recommending a “nested” version over a parallel option.
The recommended nested version would construct a railway underneath the roadway, while the other would have the elements side by side.
To be nested, the roadway bridge would be about 300 feet tall. The cost to build the combined bridge is $548 million, $16 million less than building two separate structures.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation included a rail component, one of four options presented in 2020, originally priced $899 million. Using a 3% inflated cost for current expenses, Hardesty and Hanover said NCDOT’s design for a car and rail bridge would be $912 million today.
By comparison, NCDOT’s recommended version for replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge for vehicular traffic alone is around $356 million.
The cost for Hardesty and Hanover’s combined option is higher than NCDOT’s preferred option because the estimates were based on designs by square footage. Hardesty and Hanover’s proposals included more detailed foundation work, Rochelle said.
City rail realignment director Aubrey Parsley said at Wednesday’s meeting he began to contemplate how designing rail tracks over the river could work in conjunction with other transportation projects, after studying the NCDOT’s options to replace the Cape Fear Memorial.
The city has already been assessing a rail realignment project, identified in 2014, with a preferred path chosen in 2021. It would tie the Wilmington Terminal railroad line at Greenfield Street, down the west side of South Front before crossing the river. The project would benefit the Port of Wilmington with direct access to Davis Yard in Navassa. It would also remove up to 32 unnecessary road crossings.
Parsley said Wednesday the rail realignment project is nearing 30% engineering plans, the first step needed before moving to a federal environmental review process.
As separate projects, the rail realignment has the potential of being a billion dollar effort, and the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement is estimated at $300 million up to $900-plus million, depending on tha structural design.
Rochelle referred to Hardesty and Hanover’s findings as a “fifth option.” It’s not intended to replace NCDOT’s suggestions, only an initial concept for how it would work and what it could look like.
While Hardesty and Hanover presented the nested and parallel design options, it recommended the former based on fewer environmental impacts, aesthetics, navigability and impact to the regional network.
Both versions would have the same impact to the existing roadways and be 250-feet long across the Cape Fear River. Each also allows for a 135-foot clearance, needed by vessels that traverse the waterways; they would incorporate a pedestrian walkway as well.
Rochelle explained the roadway bridge could be constructed first, for $410 million, with another $10 million needed in the design to allow for accommodating future rail. Once the train component was added in, it would cost another $128 million for construction.
WMPO board member Neil Anderson asked about the aesthetics. The conceptual designs shown by Hardetsy and Hanover were a simple arch, which he called “spaghetti junction.”
“Could we add some architecture?” he asked, using Charleston and St. Augustine’s bridges as examples. “I don’t want it to look like a random crossing.”
NCDOT division 3 engineer Chad Kimes said aesthetics would be considered; a list of options would be presented to the community for feedback before finalizing any designs.
It’s unclear what would happen to the current Cape Fear Memorial Bridge once a new one is built. Last month, Historic Wilmington Foundation director Travis Gilbert called the 1969 structure an iconic symbol of Wilmington, now considered a National Historic Landmark; it is the state’s first movable bridge.
Gilbert suggested to the Eagle’s Island Task Force during its monthly meeting the bridge is preserved by creating a pedestrian park.
However, that’s still a way’s out, as replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is still unfunded. WMPO and NCDOT have to agree on a plan before moving forward on any option.
The new bridge is going to be submitted for consideration in the next STIP, but it won’t be finalized until 2025.
WMPO discussed earlier in the month adding another crossing between New Hanover and Brunswick counties, to be submitted as well for consideration.
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