WILMINGTON — A local transportation planning organization received some relief from the state involving a deadline extension to examine the replacement the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation granted the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization additional time to submit a tolled version of the bridge for consideration in its long-range plan. It’s one of roughly 60 projects being deliberated.
NCDOT division 3 engineer Chad Kimes said on a call Monday that does not mean a toll option has to be accepted. It just allows the WMPO a chance to see how it might score in the data-driven process that weeds out projects for state funding.
The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge needs to be replaced but has not passed muster in previous rounds of prioritization for the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program. Consideration of a toll, from unsolicited private company United Bridge Partners, was on the table in late 2020, but the WMPO board voted 7-5 against moving forward in July 2021. NCDOT confirmed no other proposals for a toll have been received since.
After months of back-and-forth discussions on ways to fund the bridge, WMPO adopted a resolution in February 2022 to consider all possible alternatives. WMPO members still stand divided on the issue of a toll, but a traffic and revenue study is underway to further advise the board on estimated costs, and how and where drivers would be diverted to avoid paying, if a toll were to be implemented.
The study will analyze at what price point drivers would choose a different route and how that increased traffic would impact other corridors, such as the Isabel Holmes Bridge and Third Street, according to Kimes.
He told Port City Daily the $2 million study — funded by NCDOT — should wrap by December; NCDOT will then present the findings to WMPO. While submissions for the next STIP round are due Sept. 29, NCDOT agreed WMPO can review the study and submit a tolled version, if it chooses, by February 2024.
Kimes confirmed the WMPO can still turn down the tolled option if it scores high enough. NCDOT does not have the legal authority to impose a toll on any facility, he said, so it would have to be the decision of the WMPO.
The typical length of time for a toll to remain in place to cover costs is 50 years, Kimes added.
Estimates for four versions of the bridge, 65-foot and 135-foot in both fixed form and moveable span, range from $240 million to $900 million. A toll would cover some of the associated costs, so less would be needed from the state.
If the board chooses to submit a tolled option, Cape Fear Memorial Bridge would then be submitted for STIP consideration twice. Both versions would be scored in the data-driven formula.
The Cape Fear Crossing, a fourth bridge over the Cape Fear River that was being explored for decades before NCDOT halted in 2019, will also be submitted. Kimes noted to PCD it’s highly unlikely for that to gain any traction, considering it was estimated at $1 billion more than four years ago.
“We cannot afford to build that project based on today’s revenue,” he added.
Issues factored into the data-driven formula of the STIP include ranking congestion, safety, freight, multimodal options, accessibility, benefit and cost.
For example, if the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge could be replaced for $400 million — the latest cost estimate for the most likely option of a 135-foot fixed span — the STIP would need to fund its entirety. If a toll was considered and could pay for $100 million over the course of its lifetime, then the STIP only needs to fund $300 million, making it a more desirable project.
Kimes said to keep costs down, NCDOT has basically taken the option of a moveable span off the table. Cape Fear Memorial was built as a moveable span in 1969.
“The number one reason is because of the upkeep and maintenance,” he said. “A moveable span needs a bridge tender there full-time. Just the cost of a bridge tender operating the moveable span is a cost on its own.”
It costs roughly half-a-million in maintenance annually, as moveable spans — meaning a deck that will move or raise — are constructed from steel and require upkeep from damage caused by the salt water. Crews are on site at the bridge almost every day welding and doing minor repairs.
The cost to build a moveable span versus a fixed span is also nearly double, plus lifelong operating costs are 200% to 300% greater, Kimes explained.
Only three moveable spans remain in division 3 — comprising Brunswick, New Hanover, Onslow, Pender, Duplin and Sampson counties; Isabel Holmes and Wrightsville Beach’s Heide Trask bridges are the others.
Fixed spans are designed to withstand up to 100 years, whereas the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is 54 years old and at its end-of-life expectancy. Roughly 70,000 vehicles cross it daily, but it’s anticipated almost 82,000 vehicles will travel over the bridge daily by 2045.
A replacement bridge is proposed to be six 12-foot-wide travel lanes, up from four currently, with a 15-foot multi-use path and 12-foot outside shoulder, Kimes explained to Wilmington City Council during a presentation at an Aug. 14 agenda briefing. The total structure would be 135 feet wide, larger than its 54 feet now and could be up to 157 feet wide with a rail component.
The main issue trying to get the bridge replacement funded is the amount of money available for statewide projects. Kimes said he estimates roughly $4 billion for the 2026-2035 STIP.
Projects submitted are reviewed first for statewide fund qualification, which is about 40% of the budget. Projects compete across all 100 counties for the money.
After consideration for state funding, the largest pot of money, a project would be considered for regional funds, which are 30% total, divided between seven regions. Therefore, that pot of money could be roughly $172 million for division 3 and division 2 (the latter making up Jones, Craven, Carteret, Pamlico, Beaufort, Pitt, Greene, and Lenoir counties).
Lastly, a project would be reviewed for division funds, which are 30% of the budget, but divided 14 ways. Each division would have about $86 million to compete for at the local level.
However, if a transportation improvement reaches the regional or division level, WMPO can apply “local input points” to influence the score; WMPO is allotted additional points to attach to whatever projects it sees fit to help bolster ratings. But there is less money available to go around in the division pot.
“Even after a project is submitted, there is still considerable local control that is retained by the submitting agency,” NCDOT strategic prioritization manager Brian Wert wrote in an email to WMPO Mike Kozlosky July 26.
The funding for STIP projects comes mostly from the gas tax and state leaders have been reviewing alternative revenue sources to pad the budget. The North Carolina Future Investment Resources for Sustainable Transportation Commission (NC FIRST) was created to research and advise on potential components of a long-term investment strategy.
In January 2021, it released its first report, which confirmed a sustainable solution is needed and NCDOT should increase its level of investment by at least $20 billion over the next 10 years.
Last year, the state agreed to divert some sales tax money to NCDOT to cover funding gaps for transportation projects. In 2022’s budget, $193 million, or 2% in sales tax money, was allocated to the transportation highway fund. The number increases to 4% this year and 6% by 2025, eventually equaling roughly $600 million extra per year.
However, the NC FIRST Commission found gas taxes are decreasing, while construction costs are rising. The group suggested giving NCDOT all sales tax revenues from transportation-related goods and services, increasing electric vehicle fees and implementing a road-impact fee for e-commerce deliveries. It also suggested transferring to NCDOT proceeds from short-term vehicle rentals, vehicle subscription services and car sharing.
Long-term, NC First is proposing a mileage-based user fee to replace the gas tax, tolling additional highways and pursuing more public-private partnerships. State legislators would have to vote to make any changes to the transportation budget.
NCDOT is also considering applying for federal grants, but many still come with up to a 50% match required.
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