WILMINGTON — The three current bridges over the Cape Fear River have struggled for years to handle the growing population in Brunswick and New Hanover counties. But for some, the proposed solution is as bad as the problem.
Concerns from both Leland and Wilmington residents dogged early discussions of a new bridge to cross the Cape Fear; neither community wanted the base and on-ramps of a proposed bridge cutting through residential or commercial areas, others objected to proposals to make the bridge a toll-road.
Early North Carolina DOT plans called for the bridge to open to traffic by 2017, but state legislators had their own concerns about the bridge: the estimated $971.5 million price tag. Raleigh cut state funding for the project in 2013.
The bridge is dead, long live the bridge?
While the North Carolina House cut the Skyway from its budget, funding remained for environmental impact studies and design planning. And, despite completion of the I-40 Wilmington bypass, the Isabel Holmes and Cape Fear Memorial bridges remain overwhelmed.
As both counties bordering the lower Cape Fear River continue to be developed, a new bridge has stayed on people’s minds and, officially, on the NCDOT’s radar. According to Brian Rick, the next project prioritization process – the state’s next round of budget considerations – will be this fall.
The meeting of the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Board (WMPO) earlier this week focused on the dozen ‘alternatives’ under consideration by the NCDOT. Two of these plans call for upgrading existing infrastructure, four plans call for new bridges at various points up and down the Cape Fear and six plans call for “hybrids” – building off of some existing structures.
The majority of the plans call for new construction at the western ends of Shipyard or Independence boulevards, crossing the Cape Fear River south of Eagle Island and connecting with Highway 133 in Brunswick Forest. The plans are more expensive – nearly an estimated $800 million – in large part because they will require a longer bridge across broader sections of the river.
Two less expensive plans – costing about half as much – call for a new bridge just North of the existing Cape Fear Memorial or from the Greenfield Lake area onto Eagle Island to meet up with the current traffic exchange on the west side of the Cape Fear Memorial.
These plans have been protested by the Downtown Business Alliance (DBA), which has solicited concerned residents to sign a petition. The petition, to be delivered to the WMPO, refers to two specific alternatives that would involve construction and the removal of historic residents in the south downtown area.
The DBA petition argues that “(t)he Memorial Bridge Alternatives will bring ever growing traffic, pollution and noise into downtown Wilmington’s already very congested core. They also require significant widening of roads and huge on/off ramps. As a result, these alternatives will do great damage to National Register and locally designated historic districts, which are essential to New Hanover County’s and Wilmington’s tourist industry, economy, heritage and brand.”
While the WMPO is designed to take into account public comment from residents, it is ultimately only one part of the decision process.
According to Rick, “the Wilmington MPO will participate in discussions regarding the alternative selection and their views will be taken into consideration.” However, Rick added, “(b)ecause this is a federally-funded project, it is the Federal Highway Administration that is ultimately responsible for the selection of the alternative for the project, in cooperation with NCDOT.”
The downtown is near and dear to many Wilmingtonians, who may well favor an alternative with a higher price to planting a bridge in its historic district. The question remains whether decision-makers at the state – and more importantly federal – level will see it that way, or whether they will look to the bottom line.