Saturday, April 13, 2024

Grant to cover up to $200M for CF Memorial Bridge replacement in the works

NCDOT is applying for a federal grant to cover at least half the cost of replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WILMINGTON — The state plans to take the first crack at federal funding opportunities for the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.

READ MORE: CF Bridge likely to be submitted for state funding with and without toll

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced funding availability for large bridge projects at the end of September. Under the Bridge Investment Program, the Federal Highway Administration is seeking applicants for bridge projects that cost more than $100 million.

There is $9.62 billion available through the program, which has a rolling funding cycle over four years. For fiscal years 2023 and 2024, there is $4.7 billion to be doled out and another $2.4 billion is available in both fiscal years 2025 and 2026.

In an announcement Wednesday, during the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s board meeting, the North Carolina Department of Transportation said it plans to apply for the grant. The state agency has already hired a consultant, HDR for $100,000, to begin working to meet the Nov. 27 deadline. 

The grant comes with a 20% non-federal match requirement, paid for by NCDOT.  Kimes told the WMPO board the state doesn’t currently have a bucket of funds to pull from for its share, but was given the greenlight by the secretary of transportation to apply anyway.

“At this time, we do not know where the state-required match would come from,” NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland confirmed. “We are focusing on the grant right now.”

The NCDOT has reported it could cost around $400 million for the preferred design replacement of the 54-year-old structure. There is currently no funds allocated for a new bridge, as it has not scored high enough in the state’s data-driven formula.

While local and state officials have been scrambling to find a way to cover the cost of replacing the Cape Fear Memorial — built in 1969 and nearing the end of its usable lifespan — grants have been mentioned to reduce its cost.

The WMPO board approved a resolution in February 2022 to explore all possible funding options, which includes a toll, for which most members seem to have no appetite for approving. The state has been exploring other opportunities as well and this is the first NCDOT has seen that could drastically help, NCDOT Division 3 engineer Chad Kimes said.

The minimum award NCDOT could receive from the grant is $50 million and the maximum is half of a total project cost — capped at $3 billion. For NCDOT that would be $200 million for a 135-foot clearance option, estimated at $400 million, according to Kimes.

A 65-foot option, also on the table, is less likely to receive authorization from the U.S. Coast Guard since there are still industries north of the bridge receiving shipments from boats that require a taller bridge to pass through. Kimes said the 135-foot bridge is the “frontrunner” and he’s doubtful those needing the clearance “would give up those rights.”

“We don’t want to go after the 65-foot and then the brakes are put on that and you need more money,” he added.

The 65-foot option is less expensive, so NCDOT is setting itself up for the maximum funding to not fall short.

Kimes said the timing to apply for the grant works in tandem for the next round of prioritization. If the price tag can decrease, the project has a greater chance of scoring favorably in the state’s data-driven formula for scheduling and funding projects.

“It would help us as we’re in prioritization right now,” Kimes said.

All transportation planning organizations in the state had to submit their multimodal projects for the next two-year round of prioritization by Sept. 30, 2024. Chosen applications will be analyzed and included in the 2026-2035 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program. 

If NCDOT received a $200 million grant, the project would be scored at $200 million rather than $400 million, making it more appealing. 

The grant will be announced by late February, early March next year. 

“So, all fingers crossed, all arms crossed,” Kimes said to PCD.

Kimes added every state is guaranteed at least one major grant for a bridge through the federal program, which has three more years of funding cycles. If money isn’t allocated this year, there are more opportunities to apply or carry over the application.

NCDOT said it plans to also apply for grant money to preserve two bridges in division 1, which includes Camden, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Pasquotank and Perquimans counties.

Currently, 70,000 vehicles — including container trucks — drive over the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge daily. Kimes estimates it will handle 100,000 cars daily in the next 20 years.

NCDOT has an annual maintenance budget of $4.8 million allocated to division 3. It spends between $500,000 and $1 million annually on maintenance. However, over the last six years, the state agency was out $50 million — already 20% of the cost of replacement. 

It will fork over another $15 to $20 million this winter to install a new riding deck, last replaced five years ago.

“It could last 20 to 30 more years if we had endless [maintenance] dollars,” Kimes said, also noting Cape Fear Memorial “should be a front-runner in the nation” for the bridge grant.

Kimes expects having to pay additional maintenance funds, again, before constructing anew.

“It takes 10 years to get something funded and get to construction,” he said. “We’ll probably have to go through another rehab project before we get it replaced, unless we start getting grants and other funding, and get this thing accelerated.”

Once a new bridge is constructed, the state can design for a 100-year lifespan. Kimes said the first 40 to 50 years should need very little maintenance other than basic inspections.

To assist with the grant, NCDOT is asking the WMPO and impacted municipalities — Wilmington, Leland, Belville, Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach — plus organizations such as the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce to submit resolutions of support. NCDOT plans to contact local legislators for endorsements.

According to the notice of funding opportunity for the bridge grants, recipients will be chosen based on bridge condition, cost effectiveness, and project readiness. As well, priority will be given to those requiring more costly expenses overall.

If an award is received, the project must be reasonably expected to begin construction within 18 months after funds are obligated; for the FY23 and FY24 funding, money must be obligated by Sept. 30, 2026.

NCDOT has already started planning and prepping with a preliminary design in mind. A replacement bridge is proposed to include six 12-foot-wide travel lanes, up from four currently, with a 15-foot multi-use path and 12-foot outside shoulder. The location is confirmed by NCDOT as just south of the current bridge. Environmental studies are also in the works.

Next month, NCDOT will present the WMPO results from a traffic and revenue study for $2 million, paid by the North Carolina Turnpike Authority, for to show the impact of a possible toll. The WMPO received a deadline extension of February 2024 to review the study results and consider submitting the bridge replacement as a toll option, along with its traditional version. It does not mean a toll will be enacted if it scores high enough; WMPO board must still vote to approve a toll.

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