Sunday, June 23, 2024

WMPO asks regional employers to help with relieving congestion from bridge closure

WMPO is encouraging employees in New Hanover and Brunswick counties to consider alternative modes of transportation or telecommuting to reduce congestion that will be generated by Cape Fear Memorial Bridge repairs. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — As NCDOT gears up for major repair work, to take place for five months on the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, the area’s local transportation organization is recommending alternative travel suggestions to help alleviate pending congestion.

READ MORE: Roughly 500 trucks will detour to S. College Road during 5-month bridge closure

ALSO: 5-month lane shutdown slated for costly CF bridge deck replacement

“It goes without saying this is going to have a major impact on our transportation network in the Wilmington region,” Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization deputy director Abby Lorenzo told Port City Daily on a call Thursday. “There’s no way to mitigate and make it all just fine but we got to thinking about the program we already have in place, our transportation demand management.”

The WMPO, tasked with providing transportation planning processes in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, is urging large employers in the region to take advantage of its Go Coast program — focused on encouraging residents to seek out alternative transportation options. 

Its advocating strategies in a toolkit to send to employers across the region. Lorenzo said WMPO staff are cold-calling large businesses in the area, such as Novant, Corning, nCino and Live Oak Bank.

Employers can offer alternative schedules to help change the times commuters are on the road to avoid peak hours. For example, the toolkit suggests changing shift hours — a typical 8-to-5 weekday schedule could go from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 9 to 5:30 p.m. Or it says employers could offer a compressed work week, with four 10-hour days, nine-hour days with one day per week or every other week off.

Staggering employee arrival time can reduce the number of cars on the road during peak times.

Also recommended in the toolkit is allowing employees to work remotely, completely removing trips from the roadway network.

WMPO is also promoting the use of public transit, including RideMICRO and pushing employees to carpool to impact the increased traffic.

According to the U.S. Census, 9,024 jobs in New Hanover County are occupied by Brunswick County residents — the largest number of commuters into New Hanover. Roughly 3,600 jobs in Brunswick are filled by New Hanover residents.

Though it’s not just commuters that travel over the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge; more than 70,000 vehicles cross it daily. 

“Whether commuting from Brunswick to New Hanover or vice versa, even just commuting on the same side of the river, the impacts of this displaced traffic are going to be felt everywhere,” Lorenzo said.

She added WMPO is working with municipalities to offer some ride and park lots for possible shuttle service as well, but nothing has been finalized.

“We’re kind of letting our major employers know these are options and that employers can play a role in promoting and accommodating their employees to try out these alternative ways of getting around,” she said.

As of 2021, there were 8,184 employer establishments in New Hanover County and 2,792 in Brunswick County, totaling 136,460 employees between the two counties.

Though she did not have an estimated number of how many the WMPO staff has spoken to, Lorenzo said employers have been receptive to implementing some of the strategies.

WMPO is also coordinating with its member jurisdictions — Wilmington, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, Wrightsville Beach, New Hanover County, Belville, Leland, Navassa, Brunswick County and Pender County — to share alternative mode strategies as well.

Lorenzo said staff will prepare communications, graphics and outreach efforts each municipality or county can use to spread the word about traffic mitigation efforts.

The average commute time for residents in the WMPO area, according to Go Coast, is 24 minutes, with more than 80% of residents using a single-occupancy vehicle when traveling to work or school. However, that will increase early next year, as residents driving from Brunswick County into Wilmington will be detoured across the Isabel Holmes Bridge instead. 

North Carolina Department of Transportation is closing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge’s eastbound lanes, which will reroute traffic over to Isabel Holmes. Work is anticipated to start in January though an exact date has not been decided. NCDOT division 3 engineer Chad Kimes said the department is still waiting to receive the materials needed before contractor Southern Road and Bridge can begin.

Crews have to make repairs to the bridge deck and will pause work during the week of Azalea Festival before resuming on April 8. It will then close westbound lanes through Memorial Day or the end of June at the latest. Travelers going to Brunswick County will also be rerouted to the Isabel Holmes Bridge.

Kimes wrote in an email this week to the WMPO and representatives from Novant that the preference for the bridge repairs was to keep one lane open in each direction. Yet, due to the reduced width of the lanes, it presented safety issues for the workers and could cause tractor trailers to face side swipes and mirror slaps.

The bridge’s riding deck needs to be replaced in its entirety and Kimes said due to the stringers, which are the structural beams that support the metal deck, half of the deck needs to be replaced at a time. Crews are working 24 hours a day to replace the deck in five months and have been incentivized to finish early.

The City of Wilmington has decided to forgo allowing container trucks to and from the Port of Wilmington to utilize Third Street. The North Carolina State Ports Authority requested the use of the roadway to reduce distance traveled by about 5 miles.

However, the city’s ordinances prohibit trucks on city-maintained streets, such as Third, and decided to uphold its regulations due to public safety.

Trucks specifically headed to the ports will need to use Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway to South College Road to Shipyard Boulevard. Motorists also will be directed to I-140 to reach I-40.

Local leaders, such as New Hanover County commissioner Dane Scalise and Wilmington council member Luke Waddell, both WMPO members, are encouraging the government entities to set up communications strategies as well. Both have said NCDOT has not been on top of its messaging to local entities or residents about the bridge closure impacts.

“To date, the communication from the NCDOT surrounding this project has been nothing short of minimal,” Waddell said, a sentiment echoed by Scalise at the commissioner’s meeting earlier in the week.

Waddell suggested the city include website updates with real-time traffic maps and detour routes, constant information updates and a FAQ page for residents to navigate the changes.

“Not everyone is a commuter, and we recognize that, but even trips you have to take on the weekends there’s opportunities to utilize alternative modes of transportation,” Lorenzo said.

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