Thursday, September 29, 2022

Independence Boulevard extension project put on shelf

The project would extend Independence Boulevard from Randall Parkway to Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, crossing Market Street and two railroad crossings. Image courtesy NCDOT.
The project would extend Independence Boulevard from Randall Parkway to Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, crossing Market Street and two railroad crossings. Image courtesy NCDOT.

Plans to extend Independence Boulevard to Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway in Wilmington are being put on the shelf at the request of the regional transportation board, which has asked to put funding for the project on hold until consensus can be found on its location and design.

At the latest monthly meeting of the regional Transportation Advisory Committee—the governmental arm of the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization—Chairwoman Laura Padgett said Wilmington City Council was in disagreement over the design and location of the road, which would conceptually extend Independence from Randall Parkway across Market Street to connect with the MLK Parkway.

Doing so would add a third, central north-south corridor for traffic in Wilmington, between the other corridors of College Road and Third Street. Transportation planners have said the project would also require an interchange at Market—by way of a sunken roadway or elevated highway—to keep traffic moving and prevent backups.

Design options have included a boulevard concept on top of a berm, which would allow Independence to cross over Market, and the sunken roadway concept, in which Independence would run underneath Market. Padgett and other committee members have expressed concerns that either option would divide existing neighborhoods, and Padgett, who also serves as a city councilwoman, said similar concerns are shared by council.

Related story: Sunken roadway, elevated rail among options considered for Independence extension

In light of those concerns, Padgett said funds being put toward the project’s design could be better spent on other projects that the area currently supports. Stopping funding for design would not take the project off the area’s wish list, and Padgett said doing so could benefit the area by putting those resources toward other needs.

“My concern right now is there’s no agreement locally this project should be built as it’s being designed,” she said. “My concern is we are in fact wasting money and resources.”

Karen Fussell, division engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, said projects scheduled ahead of Independence currently total just under $600 million. She said the extension project is low enough on the list to justify putting the project on hold.

Mike Kozlosky, director of the Wilmington MPO, cautioned that taking money away from the project could affect its eligibility for future funding through the state’s Strategic Transportation Investments law, which he noted was intended “to take the politics out” of prioritizing projects.

“I just want to caution if you stop work, you’re really losing any progress that’s been made,” Kozlosky said.

Padgett replied that Independence would require local funding if it’s going to be built anytime soon. She said such funding would also be beneficial in that the city could have more say in its design. Fussell added that such local participation could also increase the project’s standing in the prioritization process.

The project had been scheduled for right-of-way acquisition in 2019, though it remained unfunded in terms of construction dollars.

The committee voted unanimously to send Fussell a letter stating its preference to stop work on the project. “That’s a fairly significant step,” Padgett acknowledged, “but we also have to make our position known of what roads we want in our community.”

Padgett said the project would be “a 55-mph freeway through the middle of Wilmington,” adding it was likely the road would be built on a berm because that was the cheaper option. In a previous presentation to the committee, the DOT projected the berm concept would cost $150 million, while the sunken roadway would cost $250 million.

“It will be a wall through the middle of this city,” Padgett said, adding that if the project involved local funding, there would be more sensitivity to what the city prefers and how the project is built.

Padgett said the project was being designed as a 55-mph highway to qualify for federal transportation funding. If local funding was involved, she said the city could request a lower speed limit on a boulevard concept, similar to the how the rest of Independence is designed.

“It’s a question of: Do you want to speed people through the city, or have people drive differently when they get in the city?” she said.

Jonathan Spiers is a reporter for Port City Daily. He can be reached at (910) 772-6313 or jonathan.s@portcitydaily.com. On Twitter: @jrspiers

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