Sunday, June 23, 2024

CF Memorial Bridge repair work off to rainy start, delayed due to weather

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge preservation project has been delayed to Monday, Jan. 29, due to rain. (Port City Daily/file photo)

WILMINGTON — Construction on the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, scheduled for Sunday, has now been pushed back one day due to rain.

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

The eastbound lanes of the bridge will now close at 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 29, according to an update from the North Carolina Department of Transportation.  

NCDOT Division 3 Engineer Chad Kimes briefed local leaders and media Thursday on the preservation project ahead of its start date. Southern Road and Bridge will be replacing the entire riding deck and support stringers on the bridge, slated to take place through May or June. 

In the interest of safety, Kimes said crews will not work during “rain events.” During that time, all lanes on the bridge will be open. 

Kimes didn’t specify what would constitute a consequential amount of rain to trigger a construction pause, though Sunday’s forecast is calling for thunderstorms and winds from 10 to 20 miles per hour. 

“It really depends on the severity of the storm,” Kimes said. “I mean, if you’re talking maybe mist, or a fog could affect it. But I want to make it clear when you do a major traffic shift, you want the weather to be perfect. And we will make those decisions all the way up to that point.” 

Southern Road and Bridge — awarded the $7.1 million contract — is shutting down eastbound lanes until April, then westbound lanes will close. Drivers will be diverted to other routes, including the Isabel Holmes Bridge and Highway I-140. Anywhere from 300 to 700 trucks cross into Wilmington daily to reach the port; they have been instructed to use the Isabel Holmes Bridge to Martin Luther King Boulevard to South College Road to reach the destination.

“If we see an opportunity to speed this up, we’re going to speed this up,” Kimes said on Thursday. “One thing I will not sacrifice is safety.”

NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland told Port City Daily there is no extra time built into the preservation project’s schedule for weather events. Technically the project contract ends in June, so Southern Road and Bridge has one month of cushion before a penalty. There is a $500,000 incentive to finish the project by May 22 and 200,000 by June 28. But if it’s not complete by then, the company will have to pay NCDOT $6,000 for every day work continues past the deadline.

If this weekend is any indication, the weather forecast over the next few months may portend otherwise. 

According to data from the National Weather Service of Wilmington, the potential for above-normal rainfall can be expected due to El Niño, a natural, periodic warming of ocean water across the tropical east Pacific Ocean. The East Coast is still affected, however; the Carolinas experience the largest effects of the phenomenon during the winter, when the moisture on the West Coast is transported to the southern United States via the jet stream.

There is a 70% chance that this winter’s precipitation totals will reach the upper one-third of historical measurements, according to the NWS. It could be nearly 2.5 inches more rain than average. El Niños can also increase the amount of intense storms, often called Nor’easters, on the Atlantic coast — two have already affected Wilmington in mid-December and mid-January.

“I don’t foresee any extensive dry period,” Steve Pfaff, NWS meteorologist, confirmed to Port City Daily Thursday. “But we might have to deal with a few rounds of storms from time to time as a result of the pattern.” 

Aside from weather, NCDOT is hoping to avoid supply-chain delays as well. Not all products to complete the preservation project have been received. The state agency is incentivizing the on-time arrival of the $1.7 million stringers from W&W AFCO Steel LLC and $3 million grid deck from Frontier Gratings LLC. The materials are set to reach Wilmington on Feb. 12 and Feb. 20, respectively. Two weeks of work is needed before the stringers’ arrival.

Kimes said this will be the first time the bridge’s stringers have been replaced since the bridge was built in 1969. The riding deck is replaced roughly 10 years due to its ability to raise for ship traffic, which puts more wear and tear on the structure.

As for other delays — those imposed on drivers coming into Wilmington — NCDOT has taken several measures to reduce congestion. At the City of Wilmington’s request, NCDOT will place barricades on Third Street median crossovers at the intersections with Queen, Church, Nun and Orange streets. They will go up 8 a.m. Saturday. 

These barricades will prohibit left turns for drivers on Third Street, and will redirect the side-street traffic into turning right onto Third Street. Drivers needing to make a left turn at one of these streets will need to go to the next traffic signal on Third Street.

The intersections will remain in this pattern until the preservation project is complete.

Any work that could cause delays on the detour routes has been suspended by the NCDOT. The department recently installed a new traffic pattern on the Isabel Holmes Bridge, including an additional northboard turn lane and four traffic signals, to accommodate additional cars.

Kimes said the department will update, which will notify GPS apps of the closures. DriveWyze, an app used by truckers, will also be updated. The port is adjusting its schedules of gates opening and closing to more evenly distribute traffic.

Message boards have been added throughout Cape Fear notifying drivers of the bridge closure and drivers can also tune into traffic cameras at  the detour sites to see almost real-time congestion. The cameras’ feeds are on a 3-to-5 minute lag.

NCDOT will also be implementing an immediate tow policy along the detour routes. Normally, tows would occur within 24 to 48 hours, but the goal is to get vehicles removed within a few hours while the project is underway. 

HAWKS — Helping All Work Zones Keep Safe — is being utilized to employ off-duty state highway patrol officers to monitor detour routes as well. Kimes said this was the first time he’s seen the program’s implementation in the Cape Fear region.

The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has been educating local employees on alternative ways to travel and encouraging employers to allow their staff to work from home when possible, to help decongest roadways as much as possible. Wave Transit confirmed it was working with NCDOT to provide microtransit options for New Hanover and Brunswick county residents. The program has not been finalized at this point.

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