Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Eleventh-hour Cape Fear Crossing route gains local support ahead of public hearings

A modified Cape Fear Crossing route has gained some local political support out of Leland, but according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, has the same "fatal issues" as the northern route it seeks to update.

V-AW Modified is a new informally-created option co-opted by local Leland leaders and a grassroots group that would reduce cost, residential, and business relocations for the state's plans to build a new bridge crossing over the Cape Fear River. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Brayton Willis, Google Earth)
V-AW Modified is a new informally-created option supported by local Leland leaders and a grassroots group; the route would supposedly reduce cost, as well as relocations of residences and businesses for the state’s plans to build a new bridge crossing over the Cape Fear River. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Brayton Willis, Google Earth)

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — A re-worked route created by a member of the Leland Transportation Oversight Committee has been put in front of political leaders this month in an 11th-hour attempt to reduce Cape Fear Crossing’s negative public impacts.

There’s also a second new option, which would require expanding the southern portion of the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s established study area; this option is also receiving political attention.

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

However, NCDOT doesn’t appear to be budging. After two hearings in Wilmington on Monday and in Leland on Tuesday, the public has about three weeks to get its comments heard by the NCDOT.

Once the public comment period is up, the department and its 14 additional merger team partners are due to pick a non-binding preferred alternative. This marks the furthest along in the planning process Cape Fear Crossing, a $1 billion proposal for a bridge connecting Brunswick and New Hanover Counties, has ever made it (previous iterations, including the so-called Cape Fear Skyway, have previously faltered earlier in the process).

V-AW Modified

Brayton Willis, a current member of the Leland Transportation Oversight Committee and Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (WMPO) Citizens Advisory Committee, drafted a new option this month: “V-AW Modified.” (Note: you can find maps of several options below in this article.)

“I kept on looking at the goals and objectives of the WMPO and said, something’s not marrying up here,” Willis said Thursday.

A nearly 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Willis said his time with WMPO ingrained him with the importance of multi-modal transportation (i.e. mass transit, vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians), a feature which Cape Fear Crossing lacks. Willis aims to resuscitate a northerly route, which was previously ruled out as nonviable because of its adverse impacts on Wilmington’s historic resources. (When federal funds are involved, federal laws, like the Historic Preservation Act, must be followed).

Alternative V, as studied by NCDOT, impacts 3.2 acres in the Wilmington Historic District, the Jacob and Sarah Horowitz House on Carolina Beach Road, and would relocate four to five houses in the Sunset Park Historic District, according to a Feb. 12 North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office assessment.

“The one hitch of the whole giddyup is the historic properties in the Wilmington Historic Overlay,” Willis said.

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

V-AW Modified would instead require the relocation of a few riverfront Wilmington businesses — for example the storage tanks off South Front Street — between the Port of Wilmington and the existing Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. The bridge itself would run closely parallel to Cape Fear Memorial.

Compared to Cape Fear Crossing’s six already-studied alternatives, V-AW Modified requires far less, if any, residential relocations. It would also leave open the opportunity for coordinating rail re-alignment efforts, the option of pedestrian access, and leave room for a public park.

Though Willis has gained political support, his plan hasn’t gained any traction at NCDOT Division 3. “This modified alternative for V-AW has the same fatal issues as the current proposed V-AW alternative plus some additional issues that would not make it a feasible and practicable alternative,” Chad Kimes, NCDOT’s deputy division engineer, wrote in an email responding to Willis’ pitch.

Counter-points

NCDOT just published a 1,009-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement. As of June 2018, state and local governments had spent at least $10 million on studying the project.

NCDOT has spent countless hours studying existing routes within a study area established in June 2013. The study area itself was expanded further south per Town of Leland’s request, according to NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland.

“The proposed alignment does not improve US 17 west of the US 74/76 interchange as V-AW does, and traffic studies have indicated these improvements are needed in order to improve traffic along this corridor, therefore the modified alternative would not meet the purpose and need of the project,” Haviland wrote in an email. “The project would also likely impact property owned by the Port of Wilmington.”

In response to NCDOT’s comments, Willis tweaked his proposal and addressed each point made (read NCDOT’s comments and Willis’ responses in V-AW Modified proposal documents at the bottom of this article).

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)

Tweaking MA or NA

Cape Fear Crossing Citizen Coalition, or CFC3, finds merit in both Willis’ cause and tweaking routes MA and NA. But getting that done means expanding the study area about a half-mile, which means starting over on studying routes.

“To do so, [NCDOT would] have to back up, and they are unwilling to do so,” Joanne Donaghue, one of CFC3’s principal organizers, said Thursday. “They require pretty modest movement of the study area. That would help out folks that live in Stoney Creek, Snee farm, The Farm at Snowfield area, as well as folks in the Cape Fear National area.”

She said efforts to get V-AW Modified past NCDOT Division 3 have been fruitless. “The sticking point is the study area. We think it makes sense now to take a pause and get this right.”

Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman recently held meetings with mayor pro-tem Pat Batleman, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, and U.S. Congressman David Rouzer about these route options.

“Our goal is to try to find a way to avoid harmful impacts to Stoney Creek, Snee Farm, and Brunswick Forest,” Bozeman wrote in an email Friday.

Both Batleman and Bozeman are supportive of V-AW Modified. But, according to Willis, Saffo wasn’t fond of a northern route — he prefers a southern one; according to Bozeman, Rouzer leaned toward amending MA or NA.

“The second, and probably the easier of the two to accomplish, was a slight modification of MA or NA,” Bozeman said. Rouzer offered to talk to Transportation Secretary James H. Trogdon III, according to Bozeman, about the southern proposal.

John Elizandro, spokesperson for Rouzer, said the congressman intends to share Leland’s concerns with the department, even though it’s not a federally-managed project.

“As the Congressman told the mayor and every constituent that has inquired of him or his office, this is a local NC DOT issue — not a federal U.S. DOT issue,” Elizandro wrote in an email Friday.

With NCDOT’s public hearings just days away, Willis said he’s sympathetic to the merger team’s position.

“You can’t constantly come up with new alternatives that aren’t viable and attempt to study them,” he said.

Even if V-AW Modified doesn’t work out, he hopes his ideas will help inform the decision-makers. “If it dies, it dies,” he said. “I’m a little bit slow to the draw sometimes. Maybe it’ll find the right eyes.”

Public hearings will be held Monday and Tuesday:

  • 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.

Modified V-AW, for elected officials by Johanna Ferebee on Scribd


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

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