WILMINGTON — Come 2024, motorists in an already congested area of town may find themselves waiting a bit longer to cross the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. Repairs are slated to begin this winter, which will reduce traffic to one direction for almost half a year.
The 50-plus-year-old bridge, already nearing the end of its life expectancy, needs to be replaced. But with limited options and funding to do so, maintenance is required to keep it functioning for a little while longer.
During recent work on the bridge — which at this point happens weekly according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation — cracks have been identified in the deck that nearly 70,000 vehicles drive over daily.
While a project timeline is not yet set in stone, NCDOT is aiming for a January start date and 95 working days from two crews required to complete the full deck replacement. Ideally, construction will be completed before Memorial Day weekend, which NCDOT Division 3 engineer Chad Kimes said is feasible but aggressive.
The construction should add another 10 years of life to the deteriorating structure.
“I do want to make it clear — it is safe,” Kimes told the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Board on Wednesday. “They’re keeping an eye on it, keeping it maintained, it’s just a lot of work has gone into it right now.”
NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland said costs are still being prepared for the deck replacement, but could range from $5 to $10 million.
Compounded by the number of container trucks and large vehicles that traverse the bridge, its deck has a shorter lifespan than others of equal material and magnitude. It was last replaced about a decade ago.
The crisscross pattern of the bridge’s riding surface is starting to fracture, causing the deck to break, Kimes explained. Cracks have been identified in welded sections of shims — used to raise the deck — that connect to the stringers.
“We can’t keep going and welding every week to fix this,” Kimes said. “There are easy to identify breaks on the bridge’s grid deck where they are breaking off entirely.”
However, it’s not just an easy solution. The only mill that fabricates the required material is shutting down indefinitely December 2023.
NCDOT’s request for the material will be one of the mill’s last jobs before closing its doors.
“It’s an issue with moveable spans,” Kimes said, iterating the department is leaning toward phasing them out entirely. “We’re running out of folks to get this stuff made.”
He also noted the state department, per policy, cannot procure items overseas; manufacturers must be located in the U.S.
To ensure the supplies are received in time, NCDOT is hoping to place its order by mid-September using designs by Pennsylvania-based bridge engineering firm Modjeski and Masters, which specializes in moveable span structures. There is no timeline to have designs finished.
Kimes hopes to have the materials in hand so when the design is completed and a construction firm is hired, the work will be ready to begin.
The stringers required should be “a little easier” to procure but still have a 15-week fabrication time after the order is placed. NCDOT must first obtain the measurements for the beams, connection plates, bolt holes and stiffener locations before placing an order.
The department has already secured U.S. Coast Guard approval and permitting; vertical clearance should not be impacted.
Daily commutes, however, will be affected.
As the stringers span the width of two lanes of traffic, an entire entrance and exit direction will need to be shut down daily, 24/7, for 10 weeks at a time, totaling 20 weeks. Two lanes of the deck going toward Wilmington will be replaced before moving to the other two lanes, for vehicles leaving the city toward Brunswick County.
After Memorial Day, crews will come in to apply paint coatings and final touches.
WMPO members asked if this option was the only one to make the repairs. Kimes said another would be to stretch out the work over a year, but it would cause more impacts and delays than knocking it out all at once. The number of man hours it would take to work over an entire year versus 20 weeks gets expensive, he added.
“Worst case, if we don’t get the material, we’re not going through the summer season of this type of work, or hurricane season,” Kimes said.
In that scenario, NCDOT would hold off until fall 2024 to start.
“Our back’s against the wall,” Kimes said.
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