WILMINGTON — Any time the topic of tolling the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge comes up, it leads to controversial debate among area leaders; Wednesday’s meeting was no different.
North Carolina Board of Transportation member Landon Zimmer suggested Wednesday to the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Board that state leaders would take local officials more seriously on the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge if a toll was on the table. The bridge has been under review for replacement since 2020.
Zimmer, also a WMPO member, implied the board wasn’t exhausting every possibility to qualify for state funding. The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge project, without a toll, has already been submitted to the NCDOT’s next round of project prioritization. It will be reviewed next spring through a data-driven formula; projects that score high enough will be allocated funding and included in the next 10-year plan.
The bridge historically has not rated high due to its extensive cost — estimated up to $400 million. Revenue from a toll could help reduce that overall amount.
However, the WMPO board voted against implementation of a toll last year after turning down an unsolicited proposal from a private company in 2021. United Bridge Partners could have paid to replace the bridge and install a toll for 50 years to cover the cost.
After additional debate on how the bridge would get funded, the WMPO board passed a resolution in February 2022 to allow NCDOT to explore all options: traditional method through the State Transportation Improvement Program (though it hasn’t scored well on its own), alternative deliver (such as the unsolicited proposal) and a toll.
The state agency paid CDM Smith $700,000 to perform a traffic revenue forecast to gauge the impact a toll would have on the bridge’s ultimate cost, as well as on traffic.
NCDOT Division 3 engineer Chad Kimes presented the findings at Wednesday’s board meeting. If a $1 rate were added to the bridge over 35 years, it would cover $174 million of the project, leaving NCDOT to pay for $270 million. If a $2 rate were implemented, it would double the revenue to $359 million, leaving a funding gap of $85 million.
Kimes said, hypothetically, based on the scoring formula used in the last round of prioritization, a $2 toll rate is the only option that would get funded. It would likely rank as the number one project, with a score of 85.6 out of 100. Most projects under a score of 75 do not get funded.
WMPO has until Feb. 1 to decide whether it wants to submit the replacement to NCDOT to include a toll.
“I’m telling you guys, we need to get creative here or nothing’s gonna happen,” Zimmer added.
The State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) weighs the possibility and need of projects based on a variety of factors — Zimmer said having “skin in the game” is one.
“NCDOT, state legislators and the federal government are not gonna stick their necks out for areas that aren’t serious,” he added.
That could come in the form of discretionary funding, out of the state budget, for the region. Zimmer referenced Charlotte and Raleigh as examples of precedence where cities were “willing to show they’ll do whatever it took” to pay for new roads.
“I do know, they voted to look into the option for a toll and never had to have one,” Zimmer said, though he wasn’t clear on which projects. “Because the legislature gave them funding for that.”
North Carolina Turnpike Authority chief financial officer David Roy confirmed state law prohibits tolling existing facilities. He explained an existing roadway that is rebuilt with added capacity is considered “new” and therefore can be tolled. The WMPO would have to vote to authorize a toll, though; the state does not have legal authority to do so without the board’s approval.
The bridge replacement would be a new structure built just south of the current one and expanded from four lanes to six; it would also include a 15-foot multi-use path. The difference in constructing a bridge with an inbound and outbound toll would be about $8 million more, which would pay for the technology needed.
Many board members questioned Zimmer’s theory that being open to a toll is the only way to gain traction.
Belville Mayor Mike Allen said the Cape Fear region has always been short-changed when it comes to its “lion’s share” of funding — based on population — from the General Assembly.
“I know we think we’re important and we’re big and that we deserve this — we’re growing fast but there’s a lot bigger, faster growing places that can say the same thing,” Zimmer said.
He mentioned Charlotte, the Triangle and the Triad regions have more cities in the top 10 fastest growing areas compared with Wilmington, ranked eighth.
“You’re telling us you don’t have to go with a toll and then telling us if we don’t, there’s a high probability it won’t get the chance to score,” Allen said. “It seems like the state wants our bridge to be tolled and I’m having an issue with that.”
Commissioner Jonathan Barfield expressed frustrations with the process.
“I would never in a hundred years support us putting a toll on an existing road,” he said. “It’s the state’s responsibility to fix it.”
NCDOT owns the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and many WMPO members agreed the burden should fall on it, not the taxpayers.
Barfield told Port City Daily regional leaders need to work together, referencing what happened with the Cape Fear Crossing. NCDOT spent nearly $11 million to study another bridge to be built farther south, near River Road on the New Hanover County side, but Barfield said on the Brunswick side there were some development challenges.
The route for the Cape Fear Crossing could have impacted Mallory Creek and Brunswick Forest, which Brunswick County commissioners opposed.
“I remember back in the day when we had some folks who served in Raleigh that had the juice to get things done,” Barfield said.
He confirmed to Port City Daily Sen. Michael Lee, Rep. Ted Davis, and Rep. Deb Butler in New Hanover County, as well as Sen. Bill Rabon, Rep. Frank Iler and Rep. Charlie Miller from Brunswick County, are on the same page.
Zimmer made it clear that “clout” carries no weight in NCDOT’s funding process — it’s all about the data.
“The only way to move forward is to further study other options,” Zimmer said. “To not study what other options there are is ignorant.”
“Status quo — that’s an option, we can sit and do nothing,” Zimmer continued. “We’ve been doing that.”
“Watch your words with me,” Barfield fired back. “I’m not the one to play with — I’m not that guy.”
Wilmington city council member Luke Waddell said tolling the residents who commute to work would be like double taxing them.
“Residents paid for it via the gas tax,” he said. “That money is used to maintain and replace existing roadways, which the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is.”
He also referenced U.S. Census data that shows 13,000 jobs in New Hanover County are filled by Brunswick County residents; half of them earn $40,000 or less. There are also 5,000 jobs in Brunswick County, which are filled by New Hanover County residents, also with half earning $40,000 or less.
“It’s a regressive tax and it’s unfairly shifting the burden to residents,” Waddell said. “The working-class folks will feel it worse.”
The traffic revenue study also assessed vehicle volume impact on the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, the Isabel Holmes Bridge, Third Street and U.S. 74/U.S. 421 in Brunswick County based on whether a toll was added.
By 2035, U.S. 74/U.S. 421 in Brunswick County would have the largest spike in traffic — up to 30% more — if a $1 or $2 toll was added to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
The Isabel Holmes Bridge would see an increase of vehicles between 1% and 10.5% — an additional 3,000 cars — if there was a $1 to $2 toll on the Cape Fear Memorial.
Third Street traffic would rise by 8.6%, or 1,575 cars, in morning peak hours if the bridge was tolled; however, even if there isn’t a toll, Third Street is likely to see an 11% jump in volume for evening traffic by 2035. There would be a decrease in morning traffic on Third with a toll because the bridge would be wider, allowing cars to flow through more easily.
Kimes explained by roughly 2045 the traffic impacts would start to level out as commuter behavior changed and new habits formed.
Brunswick County commissioner Frank Williams — also against a toll — said it would be “foolish” to not at least look at how a tolled bridge would score. The WMPO would still have to vote on pursuing the toll; NCDOT does not have the authority to do so without local authorization.
“Two years ago, we made this project our number one priority,” he said. “If something’s really your number one priority, you evaluate all options to get it done.”
He added he gets emails daily from residents asking when the bridge will be replaced or inquiring about the status of the project.
“I would much rather have a toll bridge than no bridge,” Williams said.
Zimmer iterated the board would only be authorizing NCDOT to continue studying how the toll revenue would impact the project’s ability to score high enough in the STIP. No vote was made Wednesday on exploring the option further.
“There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain,” he said.
Based on general statute, if the WMPO were to implement a toll, it could potentially receive up to $100 million of bonus state money. The funds could be used for other needed transportation projects in New Hanover and Brunswick counties.
Iler, co-sponsor of legislation in 2013 that created the criteria for the STIP, was on the WMPO Zoom call; the board made a motion to allow him to speak. He said the STIP law needs to be altered to update the weight given to each criteria used in the formula.
Issues factored into the data-driven formula of the STIP include ranking congestion, safety, freight, multimodal options, accessibility, benefit and cost.
NCDOT is also looking into other ways to offset the cost of the bridge, including applying for grants. On Dec. 4 it will submit an application, with letters of support from all of WMPO’s member jurisdictions and Cape Fear legislators, for a United States Department of Transportation Bridge Investment Program grant.
If selected, which will be announced in the spring, the state could receive up to half the cost of the bridge replacement, or around $215 million.
The agency is also looking into Infrastructure for Rebuilding America and National Infrastructure Project Assistance grants.
Kimes explained the importance of grants is to further reduce the cost of the project, increasing its score in the STIP and likelihood of state funding. Even if a toll ended up being implemented, a grant could help offset the dollar amount or the timeframe it would remain in place.
There are multiple opportunities to apply and receive money from all three grant programs through 2026.
“You can go after multiple grants, you can receive multiple grants, but you cannot go over the 80/20 rule,” Kimes said, meaning only 80% of a project can be funded with federal money.
Zimmer also said being open to the toll option gives grants a competitive advantage.
“These grants flat out ask if a toll is being considered; it’s a major deal for them” he said. “They’re more willing to play ball.”
On top of the traffic and revenue forecast paid for by NCDOT, the state also allocated $2 million toward the merger process, which is the environmental study needed to allow NCDOT to build a new structure.
It involves all related agencies — North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, Coastal Area Management Act, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Federal Highway Administration — to determine the least amount of environmental and human impacts in the replacement of the bridge.
The merger process provides a way for the entities to discuss and reach a consensus on how to meet regulatory requirements to the Clean Water Act, NCDOT engineer Caitlin Melvin told Port City Daily, and to “work more efficiently.”
The completion date for the merger process is slated for spring 2025, Melvin added.
[Update: This article incorrectly interpreted Jonathan Barfield’s message on who needs to be “on the same page.” He was referring to Brunswick and New Hanover counties, not state leaders, who he said are all working toward the same goal. Port City Daily regrets this error.]
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