SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is fighting time. Its movable section, if left alone, has just 10 years of functional life remaining.
The fixed portion would have 20 years, if no maintenance continues, prompting local planning officials and the North Carolina Department of Transportation to aggressively pursue studying, designing, and constructing the 50-year-old bridge’s replacement this decade.
A new bridge would cost $200 million, according to early NCDOT rough estimates. Preliminary plans show the new structure would be constructed roughly 40 feet south of the existing Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
At this point, continued maintenance is nearly outpacing the cost to replace the bridge. NCDOT spends $500,000 a year on basic upkeep, and more than $10 million every six-to-eight years on major rehabilitation projects. The most recent intensive maintenance job that wrapped up in December (remember those nightly bridge closures?) cost the department $15 million.
Another rehabilitation project will likely be due before a new bridge is completed, according to Chad Kimes, NCDOT’s Division 3 Engineer.
“We’re starting to spend more money on maintenance than we would for building a new one. We’ll figure out a plan to get it replaced,” Kimes said. Despite the department’s recent financial struggles, Kimes is confident that Cape Fear Memorial’s replacement will get funding priority. Soon enough, the region won’t have a choice. “We’ll get it funded.”
After years of lawsuits related to the Map Act, the department has wound up with a fund balance in the red, legally locking it out of entering new contracts. Liabilities in August related to the cases were $311 million and counting; storm-related costs also contributed to this setback, costing the department $222 million over the past few years, three times as much as it was averaging previously.
Division 3 laid off about 54 temporary and consultant employees in September to reckon with its financial troubles. By next year, Kimes said he anticipates the department will be back moving full speed, able to pursue design work on already committed projects.
“A lot of those numbers will come back again. We’ll have to have them back,” Kimes said of the former employees.
These financial troubles, partnered with low scoring over the most recent State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) 2020-2029 round of funding, contributed to the recent demise of Cape Fear Crossing. After decades of studying the bridge and spending $11.5 million, the $1 billion bridge project moved the furthest it ever had last summer. The department released a 1,009-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement late March 2019 and had plans to select a Preferred Alternative for the region’s fourth bridge crossing over the Cape Fear River that were delayed six months, then indefinitely canceled.
Just .001% of the project would have been funded by the State Mobility Tier, Kimes told the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization in August, leaving the brunt of funding responsibility with the Regional and Division Tiers, which can’t possibly come up with the money.
“That all comes down to money,” Kimes said of Cape Fear Crossing. “There was no way to realistically continue on with that without it being funded.”
Unlike Cape Fear Crossing, replacing the Cape Fear Memorial would allow the department to access a statewide bridge program for additional funding; though the bridge is a replacement, it’s technically considered “maintenance of an existing bridge,” Kimes said.
A feasibility study analyzing replacement options for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is expected to wrap up mid-April. Early this month, NCDOT received the first visualizations of the four alternative bridges under consideration.
All four options being considered are preliminary. Each is subject to change, as they are simply being used as a guide to conceptualize the bridge options. Actual design work is several planning steps down the road.
The four alternatives under consideration include:
- 135-foot high-rise fixed structural clearance
- 65-foot mid-rise fixed structural clearance
- 65-foot mid-rise movable structural clearance
- 65-foot mid-rise movable structural clearance with railroad accommodation.
Each fixed structure under consideration would resemble NCDOT’s recent bridge projects (think: Surf City’s 65-foot, $53 million dollar bridge). Movable bridge options could include a portion that moves up and down, like the current Cape Fear Memorial, or feature a bascule opening, like the Heide Trask Drask Drawbridge in Wrightsville Beach.
One notable option that’s sure to garner attention would incorporate a CSX rail line, in coordination with the City of Wilmington’s ongoing rail realignment efforts.
This option will be tricky, according to Kimes. “Few structures in the world have it,” he said. The weight of a train versus vehicular traffic is a concern, he said, but is an option being considered because the department realizes how important it could be for Wilmington. “If you can do it with one bridge, the better off we all would be.”
At the same time, NCDOT is working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the North Carolina State Ports Authority to ensure ships can travel the Cape Fear River to reach bulk terminals, according to Caitlin Marks, NCDOT division planning engineer.
All options under consideration include a six-lane design that would include a multi-use path on the north side to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists. The Cape Fear Region has no pedestrian or bicyclist connectivity between New Hanover and Brunswick County (with the Southport-Ft. Fisher Ferry offering a maritime exception).
About 65,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily, according to current road estimates. The department expects a 26% traffic increase by 2045, according to Marks.
Depending on which alternative is selected, corridor impacts on either side of the bridge are expected to be minimal, according to Kimes. If the high-rise, 135-foot bridge is selected, it would likely cause more impacts on either side of the river to make way for the structure.
Meanwhile, a widening project on South Front Street to Carolina Beach Road is scheduled to begin construction in 2027. This project involves widening South Front Street from two lanes to four between the bridge and Carolina Beach Road. The project is already fully committed, according to Kimes, and could be incorporated into the bridge replacement project.
Plans include demolishing the existing Cape Fear Memorial once the new bridge opens, Kimes said. However, pending input from the State Historic Preservation Office, other options may be on the table. Because the bridge just turned 50-years-old, it’s now eligible for listing in the National Historic Register, according to Marks.
“Therefore, the study will take into consideration the age and historic significance of the existing bridge and the proximity to national and local historic districts in downtown Wilmington,” Marks said.
After the feasibility study is released, Kimes expects to begin aggressively pursuing design funding for the bridge replacement project during the current STIP round.
“My first priority is to get funding for environmental docs,” Kimes said, referencing a forthcoming Draft Environmental Impact Statement. For now, the stick diagrams available represent a “high-level look” subject to daily changes, Kimes said.
View preliminary concept drawings of alternatives under consideration below. Note: These concepts are subject to change.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org