Update: This article has been updated to include a comment from Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman.
SOUTHEASTERN N.C. ––– An unnamed company has submitted an unsolicited proposal to the N.C. Department of Transportation to replace its aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, connecting New Hanover and Brunswick counties.
The proposal includes private funding and the introduction of toll rates that will remain unknown during the planning process. Charging motorists tolls would shift the financing burden to individuals who traverse the river most frequently and free up the state’s responsibility of constructing and maintaining the bridge.
NCDOT representatives presented the proposal, first reported by WHQR, to the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) at the beginning of its Wednesday meeting.
The idea –– not an offer, the presentation specifies –– elicited a quick response from leaders on both sides of the river.
Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman said a toll bridge would create a significant hardship for the town’s residents who rely on it daily. “Leland is home to many working families and seniors on fixed incomes who are all taxpayers of the State of North Carolina. Just like anyone else in this state, we have a right to free and accessible transportation routes,” she said in a statement. “To put the cost of this bridge – one that will be used by people from all over the state and country – primarily on the backs of the residents of Brunswick and New Hanover counties is just wrong.”
Bozeman also called the plan “premature” on NCDOT’s part, when the potential infusion of federal money from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan is at play. “It’s strange to me that this plan is being pushed with such an aggressive timeline with no previous opportunity for public comment, particularly considering it has been discussed for several months in closed sessions,” she said. “I encourage the NCDOT to take a hard look at this process and encourage the citizens of Leland and the entire region to make their voices heard and demand transparency moving forward.”
In a statement Wednesday evening, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said the city’s residents pay taxes just like all other state residents, and rightly expect their infrastructure to remain free to access.
“This is a matter of equity for those who travel to work across this bridge every day to make ends meet,” the mayor said in the statement. “This is a matter of livelihood for Wilmington businesses and restaurants already struggling with labor shortages. This is a matter of quality of life for those in our historic downtown whose roads would be clogged and damaged by cars and trucks in search of the only remaining free route across the Cape Fear River.”
Thursday morning, New Hanover County Chair Julia Olson-Boseman’s statement was comparatively uncritical of the proposal..
“We have to consider all the possibilities to fund the major projects in the Cape Fear region, especially as it pertains to the safety of our citizens, and we have to understand any and all funding sources that are available,” she said. “I am eager to understand and learn more about the unsolicited proposal that was presented yesterday, so we can make an informed decision on how to move forward.
The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is getting old, and keeping it in order is expensive. Constructed in 1969, the bridge costs NCDOT $550,000 a year just to maintain.
Traffic on the bridge is expected to increase by 26% by 2045. By then, it will carry a projected 81,900 vehicles a day.
Every decade, the bridge requires major rehabilitation work on its movable span and on its fixed span every 15 years. The most recent major rehabilitation project cost about $15 million in 2019.
Last year, the department came up with four preliminary concepts to replace the bridge as part of a feasibility study, costing between $196 and $608 million, depending on the design.
Funding it is another task.
In Wednesday’s presentation, NCDOT representatives told the WMPO board the initial indication in the department’s ability to finance a non-tolled project of this scale in the next 10-year State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) cycle was “unlikely.”
“Based on funding over the next decade, it is not feasible to include in the 10-year STIP cycle,” an NCDOT spokesperson wrote in an email Thursday.
Funding woes have besieged the department in recent years, originating from legal fallout from a series of MAP Act settlements (the department was found to have illegally claimed private land without compensation for public projects lacking a definitive timeline). Hurricane recovery costs added to the troubles. The cash-scarce outcome included furloughs for dozens of local NCDOT employees, sharp condemnation from the state auditor and treasurer, a General Assembly bailout, and delayed projects in every region across the state.
The private-public-partnership proposal was based on one fixed-span option –– estimated to cost $245.7 million –– included in last year’s feasibility study: a 135-foot high-rise including a multi-use path. As designed, the structure would be low-maintenance with an expected life of 75 to 100 years.
It would be fully funded by the developer and include tolls for at least 50 years. The development team would be responsible for permitting, construction, and future operations and maintenance of the project, while NCDOT would maintain ownership. It would also include an undetermined “bonus amount” that would capture a portion of toll revenues and be granted to WMPO to be used in Brunswick or New Hanover counties for other transportation projects.
Each of the four planned options included a six-lane design; the developer’s plans include “adding lanes” (though the amount wasn’t specified). Developers would also accelerate delivery and possibly create jobs, according to the presentation.
Both the private and public replacement plans would construct a new bridge adjacent to the current bridge, negating any disruption to traffic. No construction timeline is available for either.
Should the privately funded project move forward, NCDOT would engage in a competitive procurement process, whereby other companies could fairly bid to accomplish the same feat.
Wednesday’s meeting marked the beginning of the programming phase, the first step of a three-year planning process before final approval. WMPO would first need to pass a resolution of support to move the project ahead within the yearlong programming phase, which would later include public involvement, a traffic and revenue study, proposing new legislation, making funding amendments, and securing planning and engineering funding.
WMPO’s needed resolution would not indicate support of the proposal –– just support for the project moving forward, an NCDOT spokesperson clarified. WMPO did not pass such a resolution Wednesday.
NCDOT identified 18 areas of potential risk, including “public acceptance of tolling” and “unknown tolling rates” during the planning phase.
Check out the presentation below:
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