Saturday, October 1, 2022

Five takeaways from the 1,000-page NCDOT Cape Fear Crossing study

Don't have time to sift through NCDOT's new Cape Fear Crossing study? Here are five key takeaways from the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, released late last month.

Cape Fear Crossing, a $1 billion planned bridge that will connect New Hanover and Brunswick Counties, is still mostly unfunded. (Port City Daily/Courtesy NCDOT)
Cape Fear Crossing, a $1 billion planned bridge that will connect New Hanover and Brunswick Counties, is still mostly unfunded. (Port City Daily/Courtesy NCDOT)

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — North Carolina Department of Transportation’s release of the Cape Fear Crossing Draft Environmental Impact Study is one of the last remaining steps before a billion-dollar route is selected.

The federally-required study is designed to help the project’s 15 partners make an informed decision.

Related: NCDOT releases sea level rise assessment for Cape Fear Crossing

Compliance with state and federal requirements, including the Clean Water Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Threatened and Endangered Species Act, are high-priority items considered in the selection process. According to the study, no major concerns have been raised by any regulatory or environmental agencies.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) released the study late last month. The merger team cannot choose a route — of which five viable alternatives remain — until after a public hearing and comment period. A pair of public hearings are planned this month on either side of the Cape Fear River, at John T. Hoggard High School and North Brunswick High School.

NCDOT’s record of decision — that is, the final decision on a route for the bridge — is slotted to take place next summer.

At 1,009 pages, the draft environmental impact statement includes a mix of new, recapped, and background information (several hundred pages of the study include dated documents).

Catch up on Port City Daily’s recent series on the project: NCDOT can’t stop development and Brunswick and Leland are one step removed from a seat at the table 

Here are five takeaways based on new information released in the study on the mostly unfunded project (plus a map of the remaining routes for reference):

Merger team members cannot approve Route V – in the bottom right – because of its potential to violate the Historic Preservation Act. The NCDOT has now assessed the threat posed by potential sea-level rise to the other five routes. (Port City Daily/Courtesy North Carolina Department of Transportation)
Merger team members cannot approve Route V – in the bottom right – because of its potential to violate the Historic Preservation Act. (Port City Daily/Courtesy North Carolina Department of Transportation)

1. Noise barriers likely

Based on NCDOT’s traffic noise analysis, noise barriers are likely in each alternative option. NCDOT must follow its own noise policy, approved by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). This policy outlines if and when noise-abatement measures are required, meeting the department’s definitions of “feasible and reasonable.”

Ruling out noise-abatement measures the department determined as not viable, noise walls are the only mitigation method being considered.

Route B, according to the department’s noise barrier evaluation results, would require the greatest length of noise walls — at 7.5 miles. That would take up nearly two-thirds of the total route’s 11.1-mile length.

Next, route T, at 5.4 miles; then route Q at 5.1 miles of noise walls. Route MA requires 5 miles of noise walls, followed by route Route NA with a 4.8-mile requirement, and lastly, route V at 4.7 miles. (FHWA early last month said route V is not a viable option due to its adverse impacts on Wilmington’s historic district.)

NCDOT is not responsible for shielding development with permits issued after a route is selected from noise. The department’s current timeline shows approved decision — also the “Date of Public Knowledge” — will take place next summer.

“NCDOT strongly advocates the planning, design and construction of noise-compatible development and encourages its practice among planners, building officials, developers and others,” according to the study.

2. Costs mostly up

A bridge crossing through downtown Wilmington would have cost about half as much as other options. However, due to compliance issues with the Historic Preservation Act, alternatives that impact the downtown area aren’t viable, according to the FHWA.

Since a detailed alternative impact comparison was created in 2017, the 2019 study’s comparison offers some updates. Aside from market fluctuations, impacts on costs could have been changed due to tweaked routes and new construction.

Compared to the 2017 study, most routes have increased in construction cost. Not including right-of-way (ROW) costs, Route MA will cost the most to construct — $808 million, a $34 million increase — according to the new study. Costing the least, sans ROW estimates, is Alternative VA at $508 million, a $3 million reduction.

Route B would require the highest amount in ROW acquisitions at $248 million. At $216 million, route T would require the second-most, followed by Route NA at $190 in ROW costs.

Including both construction cost and ROW acquisitions, route B is the most expensive alternative, at $991 million. Next, route NA at $960 million, then route T at $935 million; route MA at $904 million; route Q at $866 million; and lastly, route V — which has now been ruled out — at $615 million.

3. Relocations on the rise, community impacts

Inevitably, building an 11-plus-mile-long bridge includes the use of eminent domain. Total relocations — including residential and business acquisitions — increased by 62, from 172 to 234 in Route NA, the route previously requiring the highest number of relocations according to the 2017 analysis. Now, routes B and V are tied for the highest number of relocations — at 266. Route V’s total relocations jumped by 177 from 2017 to 2019, and route B’s increased by 97.

Notably, residential relocations spiked by about 50 percent in routes NA and B, by about 65 percent in route T, and more than tripled in route V. Residential relocations decreased by only a few units in both route Q and MA.

NCDOT cannot stop ongoing development in Cape Fear Crossing’s pre-determined pathways. Municipalities in North Carolina used to employ a development freezing tool, which the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2016 (read more about why here).

Routes B, NA, and T would all result in Cape Fear Center for Inquiry’s relocation. About 400 kindergarten through 8th-grade students currently attend the charter school.

Minority populations would be negatively impacted by each alternative. Areas of downtown Wilmington and near the Port of Wilmington — where the study’s threshold for minority and low-income populations is exceeded — would be impacted with all remaining viable alternatives. North of U.S. 17 and N.C. 133 in Navassa, where the study’s both minority and low-income threshold is exceeded, would not be impacted with the remaining viable alternatives (excluding Alternative V).

Minority populations in areas of Belville south of U.S. 17 and unincorporated county areas across Brunswick Forest on U.S. 17 could also be negatively impacted by the remaining alternatives.

4. Wetlands impacted, most species not adversely affected

Eleven federally-protected species’ habitats are located in the Cape Fear Crossing study area. Of these species, eight were marked “May Affect-Not Likely to Adversely Affect.” This includes:

  • Atlantic sturgeon
  • Shortnose sturgeon
  • Loggerhead sea turtle
  • Green sea turtle
  • Kemp’s ridley sea turtle
  • Wood stork
  • Red-cockaded woodpecker
  • West Indian manatee

Just one species, the northern long-eared bat, could likely be adversely affected, the study found.

Water and air quality would not be negatively impacted, according to the study. The greatest stream impacts — at 1.6 miles — would result from Alternative MA. Route T would have less than half a mile of stream impacts, the least of all alternatives.

Alternative V would result in the highest wetland impacts, at 140 acres. Not counting Alternative V, since FHWA found it to be nonviable, Route B has the highest wetland impacts, at 98.5 riparian and non-riparian acres. Route T, impacting nearly 40 total acres, would result in the least wetland impacts.

5. Loss of walking and biking paths, no pedestrian or bike bridge access

It is unlikely Cape Fear Crossing, as it is currently planned, will include bicycle or pedestrian access. All alternatives negatively impact pedestrian and bicycle transportation, according to the draft environmental impact statement.

Most impacted areas include riverfront areas of Wilmington. Independence Boulevard and Shipyard Boulevard would be transformed into freeways via Route B, MA, and NA.

This would result in the loss of current and future cyclist and pedestrian access, according to the study. Access would be limited through Route Q, T and VA. Connections along these alternative’s freeway sections could reduce pedestrian and cyclist connectivity through updated segments, the report found.

Public hearings

NCDOT announced back-to-back public hearings this week. The first will be held in Wilmington, the second, in Leland.

  • Wilmington

For more details on the project, read NCDOT’s full Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

NCDOT encourages area residents with public comments and concerns are encouraged to redirect their input to a pair of upcoming hearings 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.

Below, check out a summary matrix with NCDOT’s recent findings:

Draft Environmental Impact Statement by Johanna Ferebee on Scribd


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

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