Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Lane on Isabel Holmes Bridge closed for inspection ahead of CF Memorial repairs

NCDOT maintenance work on the Isabel Holmes Bridge over the Cape Fear River will cause intermittent delays for the next six weeks. (Port City Daily photo | Benjamin Schachtman)
NCDOT is performing its biennial inspection of the Isabel Holmes Bridge ahead of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge closures, set to shut down eastbound lanes starting Jan. 28 and then westbound lanes starting April 9. (Port City Daily/file)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — A regularly scheduled inspection for the Isabel Holmes Bridge has been moved up to not interfere with the major repair work coming this month to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.

READ MORE: CF Memorial Bridge full lane closures to start late January

From Tuesday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., one lane of the Isabel Holmes Bridge will remain closed while crews perform routine inspections. Also, the exit ramp onto U.S. 74 East into Wilmington is narrowed — meaning limited or no shoulder on the roadway due to construction work — causing traffic back-ups, according to DriveNC.gov.

Every two years, bridges are inspected for safety issues and structural concerns; crews look at the railings, decks, expansion joints, superstructure, substructure and examine underwater parts.

The last time Isabel Holmes was inspected was Jan. 20, 2022. No pressing issues were discovered during the last inspection, according to North Carolina Department of Transportation spokesperson Lauren Haviland.

“It is in good shape, there is not a concern,” she said. “These mechanical bridges [with moveable decks] are under constant inspection and maintenance, so we don’t foresee this inspection discovering anything major.”

The structure last had repair work completed in 2021. For $20.4 million, new concrete was poured on the riding deck, repairs were made to steel to improve the mechanical and electrical components. The tender house, where a bridge operator can raise the structure, was also renovated.

The inspection comes as the Isabel Holmes Bridge, averaging 37,500 vehicles per day, will experience an influx of travelers as lanes from the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge shut down for almost five months. Beginning Jan. 28, the two eastbound lanes will close to all vehicles until March 31. Cape Fear Memorial will reopen for the week of Azalea Fest and then the two westbound lanes leading out of Wilmington will shut down from April 9 to May 28.

Nearly 70,000 vehicles travel over the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and during the lane closures, drivers will need to detour to the Isabel Holmes Bridge from Brunswick County. Or they can opt to reroute to I-140. NCDOT estimates 15,000 more will cross the Isabel Holmes from January to May. Haviland said NCDOT did not perform a traffic study, which would add the cost of the project, so the amount of additional vehicles on the Isabel Holmes is a rough approximation.

There is also no weight capacity on the Isabel Holmes, so there are no concerns surrounding the added traffic, she added.

Built in 1980, the four-lane drawbridge is expected to have another 40 years of life from today. It was estimated in 2018 to cost $97.7 million to replace, according to an NCDOT Maintenance Operations and Performance Analysis Report.

Aside from the major $20-million project two years ago, NCDOT has spent “a few thousand dollars here and there” for additional maintenance to the Isabel Holmes Bridge over the last decade.

By comparison, the Cape Fear Memorial — more than 50 years old — is estimated at nearly $400 million to replace. The bridge replacement project has not scored high enough on the state’s data-driven formula for funding. However, since 2020, the state agency has explored grant opportunities, tolling and private partnerships to help with funding.

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

NCDOT spends half-a-million dollars on annual maintenance for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and doled out more than $50 million on the bridge in the last six years, including replacing the riding deck. With the current $7.1 million in repairs slated, it should have a 10-year lifespan. 

NCDOT division 3 engineer Chad Kimes has said multiple times the bridge is safe, yet last month during a press conference, he was clear he didn’t want another hurricane season to  pass without replacing the deck and its supporting stringers. The stringers are the support beams holding up the deck and have been breaking over the last year.

Southern Road and Bridge was awarded the contract to perform the work and has been incentivized to complete the project by the end of May — or at the latest by June 28 — to avoid penalties.

ALSO: Contractor for CF Memorial Bridge repair faces $6K per day penalty if not completed by June 28

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge’s moveable span will still be operational, meaning it will be raised and lowered to allow vessels through during the preservation project.

Drivers can expect delays and heavy congestion into and around Wilmington starting Jan. 28, when the first two lanes coming into Wilmington close and detours begin. More than 9,000 employees commute into New Hanover County from Brunswick County and about 3,600 commute into Brunswick from New Hanover, according to the U.S. Census.

Two large employers, New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington, have a combined workforce of more than 3,000. The local government entities are preparing to address the potential traffic impacts their staff will face in the coming months.

County spokesperson Josh Smith confirmed roughly 20% of New Hanover’s workforce commutes from Brunswick County and could be affected by the lane closures.

To minimize disruptions, the county is prepared to be flexible with teleworking options and adjusting schedules where feasible, something encouraged by the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“While we anticipate traffic-related challenges, we’re confident that these challenges will not negatively impact county operations,” Smith said. “We’re keeping a close eye on developments and are prepared to adjust strategies as necessary.”

Tasked with providing transportation planning processes in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, the WMPO is urging employers in the region to take advantage of its Go Coast program. It’s focused on encouraging residents to seek out alternative transportation options and it advocates strategies, such as carpooling, riding the bus or alternative work schedules.

City spokesperson Dylan Lee said discussions and planning on how city operations will be impacted are underway, yet no decisions regarding employees’ work schedules or options for mitigating traffic delays have been made.

“We anticipate longer travel times for city vehicles on the roads … during the closure,” he said. “We will be able to share more information on how we are adjusting once our plans are fully developed.”

The New Hanover County School system, second largest employer in the county, is also prepping for potential delays. Assistant Superintendent of Operations Eddie Anderson said he is working closely with NCDOT to minimize any potential bus route disruptions. NHCS is evaluating its routes, with plans to make adjustments as necessary.

“We will continue to monitor this throughout the project, and I’m sure we will make additional adjustments as the phasing of the project changes,” Anderson said. 

Novant, the largest employer in the county, did not respond to Port City Daily’s request on how it’s working with employees. 

Wave Transit is also reviewing the impact the bridge closures will have on its existing services. Executive director Mark Hairr said he is evaluating the potential of expanding its RideMicro services as well, but nothing is definitive yet.

The public can follow traffic information, detours and updates on the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge preservation project here.

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