Monday, April 15, 2024

USDOT grant to cover 50% of CFMB replacement gets boost from senators, other leaders

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WILMINGTON —  The North Carolina Department of Transportation has submitted the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement project for federal grant consideration, which could cover up to half the cost of the over $400 million new bridge. 

READ MORE: Vote moves toll option forward to see if CFM Bridge replacement scores higher with NCDOT

The grant application for the federal Bridge Investment Program requests the maximum amount allowed, $242.15 million. The funds would go toward constructing a higher, 135-foot fixed bridge that does not have to move to accommodate ships, with an additional two lanes.

The Bridge Investment Program was established by President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which will distribute $40 billion over five years. Up to $9.62 billion is available for large bridge projects with costs over $100 million. The minimum grant amount is $50 million. 

Several legislators and municipalities, including U.S. senators Ted Budd and Thom Tillis, have submitted letters of support to the U.S. Department of Transportation on behalf of the project.

“I have been told that replacing the bridge will bring much-needed operational capacity improvements to meet existing and future transportation demands,” Sen. Budd wrote in his letter, dated Dec. 8, 2023. “Built over 50 years ago, the bridge is now showing its age and is functionally obsolete. Recent inspections and future population projections for the region further compound the need for the bridge’s replacement.” 

Local leaders have put a lot of impetus on state leaders to advocate on behalf of the project. Those against a tolling option, including New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield and Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, have said it was the state’s responsibility to pay for the project outright. Those in favor have also called on legislators to push for funding so as to reduce a toll price or eliminate the need for one altogether. 

“We have a state delegation that can bring home the bacon to New Hanover County and I believe them whenever they tell me that they’re going to bring home the bacon whenever it comes to this bridge,” commissioner Dane Scalise, in favor of exploring a toll option in the hopes of bettering federal funding chances, said at a January meeting. However, Scalise said he would not support implementing a toll if enough funding cannot be secured.

Letters of support have also been submitted by North Carolina Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover), Sun Coast Partners Commercial, the BDK Management Group Inc., Wave Transit, the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. 

Signed-on municipalities include Wilmington, Leland, Belville, Navassa, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach. Each has representation on the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which conducted a controversial vote last month on whether to submit a tolled replacement option to the state for consideration in its next funding cycle. A non-tolled option has already been submitted.

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge has not scored high enough in NCDOT’s prioritization process for years due to its high cost and preservation projects, including one current one replacing the grid deck and stringers; it will extend the bridge’s life by several decades. However, the materials used on the bridge, built in 1969, are becoming harder and more expensive to find.

Still, NCDOT representatives were adamant that the bridge would not score high enough in the next STIP cycle under the non-tolled proposal. Despite having previously turned down an unsolicited proposal to toll the bridge in 2021, WMPO member and NCDOT representative Landon Zimmer suggested the board consider all funding options, including a toll, in November 2023.

Ultimately, the WMPO board voted 8-5 to submit a tolled option to the NCDOT, along with a non-tolled option that will undoubtedly score lower. Before the Jan. 31 vote, Zimmer said considering a toll would skyrocket the project to the top of NCDOT’s funding list. 

The vote does not set a toll in stone; the WMPO can choose to halt the toll process at any time before a contract is signed.

The consensus among those in favor of exploring a toll — the majority of the WMPO board, sans representatives from Wilmington, Leland and Navassa — believe doing so would make the project more viable for state funding. NCDOT is charged with paying for the project, and anything that can be done to lower the cost makes the bridge replacement more likely to get funding. This includes pursuing grants, like the Bridge Investment Program, to further reduce the state’s portion and, therefore, the amount of a toll or duration in which it could be put into effect, if passed. 

Because the feds are more likely to fund a project that has a secured state or local match, a tolled replacement option — because it is almost guaranteed to receive state funding — also looks better to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Haviland confirmed to Port City Daily that tolls were discussed in the Bridge Investment Program application as a possible method of funding a match, noting conversations with the WMPO were still ongoing.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, it will consider how an applicant plans to “leverage non-federal contributions from sponsors and stakeholders involved in the planning, design, and construction of eligible projects when awarding grants.”

In the event NCDOT is awarded the grant, the remaining amount of the project cost will need to be determined. If it’s not covered through the state or by a toll, exploring secondary grants to further reduce the overall bill is optional. If the latter is chosen, only 80% of the project can be covered with federal funds.

The grant awards are expected to be announced at the end of February or early March. USDOT expects to distribute 50 awards. 

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