SOUTHEASTERN NC — The Brunswick and New Hanover County Democratic parties released a statement on Saturday strongly opposing any proposed toll on the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
According to the statement, a toll will have a “devastating impact on our communities and place an inequitable financial burden on our residents, especially our workers.”
The statement is the precursor to a week-long bipartisan action initiative, which will include a community rally with Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo on Jan. 29 from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Dram Tree Park.
The conversation on tolling a new bridge that would substitute in for the current structure has been ongoing since 2021, with many local leaders staunchly against doing so. They argue the economic support the bridge provides to the Port of Wilmington benefits the entire state, not just local residents, and those taxpayers have already contributed to upkeep of the bridge through the gas tax.
Last week, the Wilmington City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing a toll; other area leaders against the toll include New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, Navassa Mayor Eulis Willis, and Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman.
The bridge project has not rated high enough in the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s scoring process and NCDOT representatives have said it will most likely continue to be unfunded unless a toll is part of the proposal.
NCDOT gave the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which makes decisions on funding transportation projects in the Cape Fear, until Feb. 1 to add a toll to the project submittal. The WMPO will take up the issue on Jan. 31.
The Brunswick and New Hanover counties Democratic parties blame the state legislature for failing to prioritize replacing the bridge.
“Unfortunately, state officials like Rep. Frank Iler, longtime chair/vice chair of the House Transportation and Appropriations Committees, have failed to address the inevitable for years,” their statement reads.
Iler responded after the release that the parties have “a profound misunderstanding of transportation funding or, even worse, exposes a desire to return to the days of cronyism and political favoritism in transportation funding,” he wrote in a release.
He added that North Carolina’s Strategic Transportation Investments law — which he was the co-author of — helped shift a system in which transportation projects were decided upon based on politics to a data-driven. According to the representative, it “reduces the chances of transportation priorities being based on who donated to which campaign.”
The law has transportation organizations like WMPO submit projects and provide input on regional and division-level projects.
“Because the WMPO is now engaged in the prioritization process, they are evaluating multiple ways to submit the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge for consideration in prioritization,” Iler wrote. “It is my sincere hope that the WMPO board members will avoid playing politics with our future and sincerely evaluate all available options to replace this aging bridge with a new one that increases capacity.”
It goes on to say a toll places an unfair financial drain on local taxpayers, particularly seniors and the working class, including teachers, first-responders, and union members. It calls the toll a “misleading regressive tax” that punishes businesses and residents, who already pay taxes on their gas, income, and DMV services.
The statement also criticizes the privatization of public assets; implementing a toll would call for a private company to run the fee collection. The parties compared the move to the 2021 New Hanover County sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health, which transferred more than $1 billion in public funds to an endowment now controlled by what the parties call “partisan interests.”
The parties are planning to request meetings with the WMPO, launch a wide-scale email, phone and ad campaign to contact each undecided or pro-toll member and mount a large public presence at the WMPO vote on Jan 31.
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