WILMINGTON — Wilmington’s 50-year-old Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is approaching the end of its useful lifespan.
Its caretaker, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, has had cashflow issues this year and may be encumbered from securing the funding needed to select which bridge replacement option to move forward with.
NCDOT Division 3 Engineer Chad Kimes presented updates on the department and the bridge’s replacement in a virtual meeting Tuesday organized by the Historic Wilmington Foundation.
Of primary concern to HWF is protecting and preserving historic structures that would fall in the path of a new bridge — concerns Kimes could not completely assuage.
However, plans steer away from historic districts and at present would include impacts to oil tankers on South Front Street.
Kimes said the department is looking to divert as much port traffic away from historic streets as possible. Engineering for a project on Front Street between the bridge and Burnett Boulevard would widen the street from two lanes to four. Construction is scheduled to begin on this widening project in 2028.
Built in 1969, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge’s specially fabricated parts are getting more expensive and more difficult to find. The steel structure that motorists drive over is sagging and creates a bumpy ride.
“I can’t stress enough — we just don’t have a bridge store to go get parts anymore,” Kimes said.
As is, the bridge requires intensive $500,000 annual maintenance and a major rehabilitation project every 10 years that continues to rise in cost. Last decade, the rehab cost about $5 million; the rehab NCDOT just wrapped up cost $15 million.
The cost to maintain the aging bridge may soon exceed the investment needed to replace it, Kimes said. Depending on which option is chosen, the cost to replace the bridge could range between $197 million to $609 million.
NCDOT wrapped up a feasibility study in May, focusing on four replacement options: a 65-foot fixed span, 135-foot fixed span, 65-foot movable span, and a 65-foot span including a railroad component. All options include a 15-foot multiuse path, which would create the first land-based travel option to cross counties for pedestrians and bicyclists in the region.
The study describes the bridge as “functionally obsolete.” It received a rating of six on a nine-point scale under the National Bridge Inventory Condition Ratings.
The three 65-foot options would cause fewer impacts compared to the 135-foot option. With a higher clearance comes a higher grade, which requires the tie-ins to spread further out.
Maps indicate the 135-foot option would include impacts through 5th Street.
With the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge clearing 135-feet over the river, Kimes said the U.S. Coast Guard may be hesitant to entertain the fixed 65-foot span option, as it would reduce existing clearance.
The new structure would closely resemble NCDOT’s other local bridge projects in Surf City and Oak Island. Kimes told HWF Director Beth Rutledge it is possible to incorporate some aesthetic elements in the new bridge design that resemble the current bridge structure.
There are no plans for what would become of the current bridge once it’s replaced. Kimes said it is possible to incorporate the old bridge into a park or other public structure, but these arrangements must be made prior to construction.
Kimes said the department is looking to other states to determine whether an alternative funding source may be available.
NCDOT has not yet reached the merger process yet, which is marked by a series of steps that involve more than a dozen government agencies to select the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.”
Requiring between $2 to $4 million to begin the merger process, Kimes was uncertain whether this step could be fully funded.
“Because of NCDOT cash balances, I’m not sure how much funding will be available in our next round of prioritization,” Kimes said at the meeting. The next round of prioritization (the process NCDOT uses to divvy out funding for selected projects) will take place May 2022. “We will see if we can obtain funding,” he said.
A smaller state pool of funding could be accessed, Kimes said, but the bridge would have to compete against other bridge projects statewide.
Watch the meeting hosted by HWF.
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