Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Feds rule out Cape Fear Crossing’s Eagle Island route to protect historic district

The decision means the region will see a bridge located further south -- granted the project gets fully funded. All options that would have built upon U.S. 17 connecting to the existing Cape Fear Memorial for Cape Fear Crossing are now off the table.

The last remaining alternative, V-AW, that would have avoided building a new bridge over the Cape Fear River, is not a viable option in the $1 billion Cape Fear Crossing project. (Port City Daily/ Courtesy North Carolina Department of Transportation)
The last remaining alternative, V-AW, that would have avoided building a new bridge over the wider section of the Cape Fear River, is no longer a viable option in the $1 billion Cape Fear Crossing project. (Port City Daily/ Courtesy North Carolina Department of Transportation)

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — One down, four more to go before a final route is chosen. The Federal Highway Administration likely won’t pursue “Alternative V,” one of six Cape Fear Crossing routes.

Alternative V is the only alternative in the $1 billion proposed bridge with a stop on Eagle Island and the only option that involves roadway enhancements to U.S. 17. This route also steers closest to Third Street and Sunset Park — a nationally registered historic district — in downtown Wilmington, compared to the five remaining routes that mostly avoid the area.

Related: Over $10 million spent on new Cape Fear bridge planning, no funding to build yet

Designed to improve traffic on Cape Fear Memorial and access to the Port of Wilmington, Cape Fear Crossing received partial funding in January.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) cannot approve projects that adversely impact historic resources, according to Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act. The law, signed in 1966, requires the FHWA to consider prudent and feasible alternatives, of which five still remain.

On Feb. 12, the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office (HPO) finalized its assessments of effects for Cape Fear Crossing’s alternatives with state and federal transportation officials. In Alternative V, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) would impact or remove 3.28 acres of structures in the Wilmington Historic District, according to HPO’s assessment. Four, possibly five, houses in the Sunset Park Historic District would need to be demolished with Alternative V, the assessment states, in addition to the required removal of the Jacob and Sarah Horowitz House.

Impacts of historic properties in Wilmington’s historic district, east of the route, trigger Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, according to HPO spokesperson Michele Walker. This regulation requires federal agencies to consider and resolve historic impacts of planned projects.

Historic resources

“Of course, in this project, we do have alternatives that avoid historic resources,” Ron Lucas, preconstruction and environmental engineer for the North Carolina Division of FHWA, said.

Through planning and consulting with state and federal agencies, FHWA learned “impacts to that district are adverse,” Lucas said. “That alternative has challenges and we would not be in a position to approve it.”

This same rule applies to how previously-considered routes through downtown got eliminated. Alternative V is the least-costly option of remaining routes. It would cost at least $220 million less to construct compared to the next-cheapest option, Alternative T, according to a 2017 study alternatives comparison. The study shows estimated relocations costs for Alternative V lower than remaining routes.

“The reason why this one may have lasted a little bit longer was because, I think there was a thought that the design could be tweaked to not have an adverse effect in the district,” Lucas said. 

FHWA is permitted to use historic properties granted it creates a “de minimis” impact, meaning the use does not affect properties or has no adverse effect.

“The thought was, maybe that alternative can be tweaked. The alignment could be tweaked so it would barely touch or brush upon the district where it would be considered a minor impact or a de minimus impact which would be fine by us,” Lucas said. “Unfortunately, as much as they tried, the impacts to that district would still be adverse.”

Moving forward, Cape Fear Crossing’s merger team will consider its five remaining alternatives. Each remaining option cuts through large tracts of land in Leland owned by Funston Land and Timber, Brunswick Forest’s developer. Alternatives MA and NA, which the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization approved as its preferred routes in 2017, appear to skirt around Cape Fear National Golf Course and undeveloped portions of Brunswick Forest.

A draft environmental impact statement will soon be released, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), ahead of a forthcoming public hearing.

Area residents with public comments and concerns are encouraged to redirect their input to the soon-to-be-announced public hearing in April. If comments cannot be held until the April hearing, NCDOT would prefer comments be sent to capefear@ncdot.gov. Learn more about the project here.

The Federal Highway Administration cannot approve Alternative-V, the last remaining route in the Cape Fear Crossing project that would have included U.S. 17 enhancements and construction on Eagle Island. (Port City Daily/Courtesy North Carolina Department of Transportation)
The Federal Highway Administration cannot approve Alternative-V, the last remaining route in the Cape Fear Crossing project that would have included U.S. 17 enhancements and construction on Eagle Island. (Port City Daily/Courtesy North Carolina Department of Transportation)

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

Related Articles