Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Hampstead Bypass back on track, work set to begin in early 2022, DOT says

After years of delays, work is expected to begin on the northern section of the Hampstead Bypass in early 2022. The bypass will be part of N.C. 417, running from the Market Street-Military Cutoff area to U.S. 17 north of Hampstead. (NCDOT)

HAMPSTEAD, NC — With the NCDOT’s cash flow outlook finally improving, the green light has been given for one of the area’s biggest and longest-delayed highway projects to begin.

Chad Kimes, who heads the Wilmington-area region of the N.C. Department of Transportation, said Thursday that contracts for the northern section of the Hampstead Bypass will be awarded in January 2022. The leg will run from N.C. 210 to U.S. 17 north of Hampstead. 

Work on the southern leg — from the end of the Military Cutoff Extension at Interstate 140 to N.C. 210 — is expected to begin in 2026, Kimes said.

In an older, less-harried time, drivers were in no big hurry to pass through the unincorporated community that, back then, still perfectly fit the bill of “sleepy village.” For tourists traveling U.S. 17, it was a place to stretch their legs and maybe stop at Carolina Peanuts for cold drinks and snacks. For folks in Wilmington, the trip up to Hampstead was still quick and could be a pleasant distraction — a seafood platter at Martha Ann’s Restaurant or Saturday night oysters at the volunteer fire department.

When the population in eastern Pender and northern New Hanover counties began to soar in the 1990s, sleepy Hampstead suddenly was wide awake. The rapid development and ensuing traffic congestion became a nightmare — not to mention a hazard as cars from shops, schools and residential areas often struggled to dart onto busy U.S. 17. Unless people had a specific reason to visit, Hampstead became a place that most drivers were eager to bypass.

The project was first proposed in the early 2000s, but disagreements over the route and location of exits slowed it down. Once it got on the fast track, recent cash-flow problems at the DOT put the brakes on it again. The two legs of the bypass, along with the Military Cutoff extension, will be designated N.C. 417. 

Other upcoming DOT projects in area

With the DOT’s financial outlook improving, Kimes said the department would have a lot going on in Wilmington and the surrounding areas over the next 12 months.

Contracts will be let in November for N.C. 211 from N.C. 906 near Southport to N.C. 87 to be widened from two lanes to four. The $100 million project previously had been scheduled to begin in 2022.

Elsewhere in Brunswick County, preliminary work continues on the Carolina Bays Parkway Extension. A joint project between North and South Carolina, it will extend the Carolina Bays Parkway (S.C. 31) from S.C. 9 in Horry County, S.C.,  across the state line to U.S. 17 in Brunswick County.

In 2016, Horry County passed a sales-tax referendum allocating $125 million for the project. Kimes said that South Carolina’s portion is now completely funded for construction. Meanwhile, North Carolina has completely funded the project’s “merger process,” which pulls together all the stakeholder agencies to streamline the development and permitting requirements. The next step for the NCDOT will be to find the funding, according to Kimes.

The cash-flow improvement also is providing a boost for the resurfacing of existing state roads in the area, Kimes said. While the Wilmington region usually gets about $30 million annually for resurfacing, $50 million will be available this year, with the work done in the spring and fall.

Replacing bridge remains non-optional project

The biggest — and perhaps most vital — highway project in the Wilmington area is the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. A feasibility study completed last year provided the DOT four options, all of which call for the new span to be built adjacent to the current bridge, which, at 52 years old, increasingly requires maintenance closures.

  • Option 1 is a fixed-span bridge with a 65-foot vertical clearance — about the same height as the current bridge when the deck is not lifted — and is estimated to cost about $200 million.
  • Option 2 also is a fixed span, but it would be a high-rise bridge with a vertical clearance of 135-foot. Its estimated cost is close to $250 million.
  • Option 3 calls for a 65-foot tall bridge with some type of span that could open. Once a movable span is in the mix, the cost soars, with this option coming in at close to $490 million.
  • Option 4 is the most-expensive option and the same as Option 3 but with a rail section added to accommodate Wilmington’s proposed rail realignment.

After plans for a high-rise bridge south of the Port of Wilmington were killed in 2019, replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge took on a new sense of urgency.

“This is not an optional project,” Kimes said at the time.

Like with the Hampstead Bypass, the DOT’s money woes killed any momentum the project had developed.

Kimes said Thursday that with the financial picture improving — the DOT had a cash balance last week of $1.1 billion, compared with $300 million a year ago — he’s optimistic the project soon will be back on track and that the necessary preliminary work will get funded.

“We’re back,” he said. “We’re coming back to life.”

It’s not been determined yet what will happen to the current bridge once the new span opens, something Kimes would like to see happen by 2030.

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