WILMINGTON — This week city staff presented a plan to overhaul Wrightsville Avenue. One council member called it ‘madness’ after pointing out it would likely complicate another major project; another seemed unsure why the ‘theoretical’ project was being discussed since neither state or local money is available to fund it.
The improvements to the stretch of Wrightsville Avenue between Military Cutoff and Eastwood roads have been suggested in several proposals from State Street Companies, the developer of the adjacent Galleria project. Most recently, State Street included in its Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) proposed plans to make the stretch of road into a ‘complete street,’ with a landscaped median, bike and pedestrian paths, and other amenities.
Related: Wrightsville Ave improvements cost estimated $11 million – $16 million; more details, developer’s perspective
Over the summer the City of Wilmington contracted Clark Nexsen to create a report, including a conceptual plan for a complete street and a cost estimate. The report, for which the city paid $19,920, laid out two possible plans costing $16.8 million and $16.1 million dollars.
There’s at least one problem, though: neither the city or the state has any funding allocated for the project.
The road is currently maintained by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), but the state has no funding allocated for any roadwork at that location, nor does the City of Wilmington include the project in any capital improvement plans, including requested but unfunded projects.
Nevertheless, city staff presented the Clark Nexsen report to city council at the end of Monday’s agenda briefing meeting (you can find the audio and presentation slides here). Several city council members had questions and concerns about the proposal — and why it was being presented.
Questions and concerns
Councilman Neil Anderson expressed concerns that the TIA didn’t factor in the planned overpass at Military Cutoff and Eastwood roads; funded by NCDOT to begin in 2024, the project will elevate Miltary Cutoff to pass over Eastwood. Anderson noted the project was bound to change driving patterns and that, because the TIA didn’t consider this, “the data doesn’t mean a lot.”
State Street has suggested the road improvements take place in three phases in tandem with the development of the Galleria project, with segments starting in 2021, 2025, and 2029.
Anderson pointed out that this would overlap with construction at Military Cutoff and Eastwood roads and that, since Wrightsville Avenue is the only other mainroad from Wrightville Beach to Wilmington (aside from the narrow Airlie Road, a 25-mph residential road that is ill-suited for high-volume traffic), the two projects would be likely to create compounded traffic issues.
Anderson pressed Mike Kozlosky, WMPO executive director and Wilmington transportation planning manager, about the potential traffic problems.
Below: Listen to the exchange between Anderson and Kozlosky.
Anderson: “So somebody’s coming off the beach, and we’re building an overpass, and you’ve got construction for two years — they’re not going to turn left of Wrightsville and go out that way?”
Koslosky: “There will be some detours.”
Anderson: “Well that’s my point … the point is the two projects going on at once would be — it’d be madness.”
Kozlosky: “I’m not saying that it would not be madness — I’m just saying at this point they have not been coordinated because there is no current funding allocated for the Wrightsville Avenue improvements.”
Following this exchange, Councilman Charlie Rivenbark noted that “well, madness occurs when you have major construction, Kerr Avenue is a perfect example and it’s done, [though] it caused a lot of heartache.”
Mayor-Pro Tem Margaret Haynes had questions about a presentation from State Street. The presentation, which was given to council members, showed possible savings of around $5 million. Kozlosky noted that while the presentation cited Clark Nexsen’s report, that the potential cost reductions were suggested by State Street, not the official report.
Kozlosky also noted that the city had received the State Street presentation on short notice, and had not had time to “fully vet” the proposal before the agenda briefing. Kozlosky noted that staff had identified “some inconsistencies as they relate to the right-of-way comment [State Street’s presentation mentioned that the company would be willing to provide easements for the roadwork free of charge] and policies that we would want to verify.” On Thursday, Kozlosky said his staff had not yet completed a “thorough review” of State Street’s presentation.
At the end of the meeting, Councilman Kevin O’Grady brought up the issue that the road project wasn’t funded by the state, and that the city had no plans to fund the improvements itself.
“I appreciate all this, but this is kind of theoretical, isn’t it.” O’Grady said. “The state doesn’t have $16 million in any budget, anywhere, does it?”
After Kozlosky confirmed, again, that the proposed project was completely unfunded, O’Grady added, “We’re not supposed to fund this, so — interesting, but we’re $16 million short.”
Kozlosky said only “this presentation was for information purposes.”
No other explanation for the presentation was given. Kozlosky did confirm that the presentation was “staff initiated.”
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.