WILMINGTON—State and local governments have spent over $10 million on planning and studies for the proposed Cape Fear Crossing project – but there’s still no sign of at least $1 billion needed to actually build it.
Originally dubbed the Cape Fear Skyway, the project was moved to the back burner by the state five years ago. But despite the completion of a third bridge over the Cape Fear River – built as part of the I-140 extension – the Isabel Holmes and Cape Fear Memorial bridges remain overwhelmed; further, the roads and intersections leading up to them are increasing overtaxed.
According to the NCDOT’s traffic analysis, released at the end of June, by 2040 dozens of stretches of road and intersections on the network connecting New Hanover and Brunswick County will be operating at severely impaired levels of service. Some, like College Road at Oleander Drive, will suffer from F levels of service in just about every direction, morning and night.
In 2013, the General Assembly defunded the project, although money remained for planning and impact studies – including traffic and environmental analyses. Currently, the Cape Fear Crossing is not part of the NCDOT’s 2018-2027 State Transportation Improvement Plan, its ten-year plan to prioritize major capital projects including those with federal funding.
State and local funding
However, the NCDOT has spent nearly $10 million on studies and, more locally, the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Organization (WMPO) has spent $1.5 million.
To date, the NCDOT has spent $9.3 million dollars, of which about $8.5 million was consultant charges, according to an email from Ray McIntyre, the NCDOT’s STIP Eastern Regional Manager. Those costs also include nearly $5 million for studies as part of the National Environmental Policy Act, environmental impact reviews required before federal funding can be assigned to a projected. NEPA costs have so far included $900,000 for technical analysis, $925,000 for “natural systems investigation,” an inventory of natural resources impacted by the project, and $525,000 for project management.
Costs also include designing several potential alternatives.
Initially, the plans for the bridge included 12 alternatives, with prices ranging from $425 million to a $750 million.
RELATED: Economics could send the Cape Fear Crossing through downtown Wilmington
The least expensive options would have routed the new bridge, as well as on and off ramps, through Wilmington’s historic downtown. These plans generated pushback from the downtown community, including petitions to the WMPO, which ultimately recommended moving forward with six alternatives using three bridge sites – none of them in the historic downtown, with only one option intersecting the South Front district.
Those six options would all cross south of the current Cape Fear Memorial Bridge: three would cross the river at the southern tip of Eagle Island and connect to Shipyard Boulevard, with varying options on how to connect to major highways in Brunswick County; two would cross further south and connect with Independence Boulevard; one would angle south, anchoring near the Brunswick-side base of the current Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and traveling southeast to the South Front district near Greenfield Lake.
These options feature generally feature longer corridors and bridge-spans, which is reflected in the price tag: NCDOT now pegs the cost at over a billion dollars — the NCDOT’s ten-year plan notes the Cape Fear Crossing is unfunded, but projects the cost at $1,161,641,000.
Locally, the WMPO has spent approximately $1.5 million to keep the project alive and moving forward.
In February of 2017, the organization spent $750,000 to fund NCDOT studies. This May, WMPO spent an additional $750,000 for programming and environmental planning. Those funds, along with approximately $150,000 from the NCDOT, will help pick a final bridge design. According to the NCDOT, that decision is due in 2020.
The Cape Fear Crossing was reevaluated during the NCDOT’s prioritization process last fall. According to NCDOT spokesman Brian Rick, the project didn’t make the cut, this time.
“This project did not score high enough in prioritization to get funded yet,” Rick said. “However, due to the extensive amount of time and money that has been invested on this important project the (Wilmington) MPO decided to use some of their federal direct-attributable funds to pay for us to continue working on this project. Therefore, it is still in the planning phase and they are actively working on choosing an alternative for the project.”
According to Rick, the Cape Fear Crossing will have a number of opportunities to compete against other capital projects in the coming months and years.
“It will be competing in the Regional Category that we anticipate to release the results for in September,” Rick said. “If it does not score high enough in that category then it will also have a chance to compete in the Division Category. If it does not make it this time, then it will compete again in the P6.0 prioritization process.”
The division category will be considered in November. The P6.0 process will accept project proposals in 2020 for funding starting in the NCDOT’s 2028-2037 ten-year plan.
According to Rick, “we are proposing to release the Draft STIP from P5.0 in January 2019 and will ask the Board of Transportation to approve it in June 2019. The P6.0 discussions with Divisions, MPOs and (rural planning organizations)will begin this fall, however, we will not really be working on specific project related issues until after the board approves the Final STIP in June of 2019.”
In the meantime, according to WMPO Executive Director Mike Kozlosky, the NCDOT plans to release its Draft Environmental Impact Statement in September, with the goal of selecting a final plan for the Cape Fear Crossing in January of 2019.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.