Friday, April 12, 2024

An ill-fated precedent: WMPO board rejects toll bridge proposal

Update: This article initially inadvertently left off Frank Williams from the list of those who voted against rejecting the proposal.

WILMINGTON –– The Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization board voted against moving forward with an unsolicited proposal to replace and introduce a toll on the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge Wednesday. 

In a 7-5 vote, a majority of the WMPO members rejected the concept, including Belville Mayor Mike Allen, Wilmington councilmembers Neil Anderson and Charlie Rivenbark, New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr., Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman, Carolina Beach Mayor LeAnn Pierce, and Navassa Mayor Eulis Willis. 

RELATED: Unnamed company proposes private funding of Cape Fear Memorial, with unknown toll rates

Five WMPO members voted against the rejection (meaning they were open to pursuing the toll concept): Kure Beach Commissioner John Ellen, New Hanover County Commissioner Deb Hays, Wrightsville Beach Alderman Hank Miller, Brunswick County Commissioner Frank Williams, and Landon Zimmer, a N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) board member. 

Wednesday’s step marked the first in a years-long process of reviewing the unsolicited concept before opening up the project to other competitive bidders, ahead of actually awarding the project. By state law, NCDOT is required to obtain local transportation planning approval via WMPO through an initial resolution (as was on the table). 

Word of a toll bridge rang out through southeastern N.C., spurring sharp criticism of NCDOT by both local politicians and residents. It picked at old scabs and amplified scrutiny of the cash-hungry department sluggish in performance. 

NCDOT Division 3 engineer Chad Kimes was exhausted: The toll bridge wasn’t his idea –– a developer sent it to them late last year –– and he was just following the statutory process. As lead point man for the department on the matter, Kimes spent the last months making rounds, giving the same presentation at least six times to local boards that requested to see it for themselves. First, he made it in closed session in May before the WMPO board, then in open session in June; New Hanover County wanted a piece of him next, then the Town of Leland, the City of Wilmington, and finally the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners. 

At 52 years old, NCDOT figures it’s starting to make more financial sense to replace the Cape Fear Memorial rather than continue patching it up. The bridge carries about 62,000 vehicles daily and costs around $550,000 annually to maintain. A major rehab is due every decade to its movable span and every 15 years to its fixed span; the most recent project in 2019 cost $15 million.

In the last few weeks, the bridgetender house overlooking the Cape Fear River started leaking, prompting an unbudgeted $500,000 expense.

Despite these challenges, somehow, replacing it hasn’t landed on WMPO’s 10-year State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), the complex scoring methodology that lets local transportation organizations rank the highest-needs projects against each other. 

The latest STIP (which doesn’t include replacing the bridge) is getting pushed back. WMPO members won’t turn over a new 10-year STIP until 2023. Even then, projects that score a spot on the STIP aren’t guaranteed to get funded. 

Cape Fear Crossing landed on the STIP, but that boondoggle evaporated $11.5 million in planning an imaginary billion-dollar bridge NCDOT later admitted it knew it couldn’t fund. 

At one-fourth of the cost, disillusioned and irritated officials aired frustrations at NCDOT for allowing them to study an impossible feat and for not prioritizing a more achievable, less sexy endeavor instead. 

Replacement options for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge range between $196 and $608 million. An unnamed development company, reportedly with experience in N.C., was eyeing a $245.7 million fixed-span option, featuring 135 feet of clearance and a multi-use path. 

Tolls would be necessary for 50 years, while NCDOT would have retained ownership and the developer would take on maintenance costs. 

As was stated in the hometown presentations, officials sought assurance that if they moved forward with the resolution, that NCDOT wouldn’t abandon its search for other funding mechanisms to replace the bridge. Wednesday, they wanted that assurance in writing: Hays motioned to add “and explore other funding options” to the resolution, in a substitute motion that failed 7-5.

Bozeman, Leland’s mayor, asked to make a third motion to reject the resolution and ask NCDOT to come back with further options; WMPO’s acting Chairman Hank Miller and attorney were already confused with the parliamentary procedure in voting on a substitute motion, so Bozeman’s motion wasn’t considered. Bozeman and her Leland counterparts were adamantly opposed to the tolling option, bringing up issues of financial fairness for Brunswick County drivers who traverse the river daily.

Their resistance was reminiscent of their contentions raised during the Cape Fear Crossing planning process, when the town was blamed for buckling the proposal (its real death was monetary, not political).

“I mean this with all due respect. . . but it would be nice for Brunswick County to tell us what they do want,” Miller said. “All I’ve ever heard is them saying ‘no’ to everything that’s come up.”

Rivenbark chimed in, reminding Brunswick representatives their drivers wear down roads in New Hanover County. 

Williams, representing Brunswick County, repeated thoughts he shared at the county’s own presentation earlier this month, stating he was looking at the proposal with logic, not emotions. He said he was unwilling to rule out the possibility based on a “knee-jerk reaction” to something that was unpopular. 

Zimmer, the NCDOT board member, acted as a de facto voice for the department, fielding jabs from every angle. At one point, he allowed a troubling perspective to slip: “If you come forward and say ‘no,’ that tells me you don’t want to explore any options. So it’ll be in the back of the line,” he said. “That’s not what we want.”

Officials picked up on this sentiment, frustrated by the implication that endorsing private tolling was the only way to stay on NCDOT’s priority list. 

No other existing route in the entire state has been tolled or is in the process of considering tolling. Wary of setting an ill-fated precedent, officials repeatedly questioned why they should allow the region to be tolled, when other cities’ roadway projects get funded by the state. NCDOT representatives did not have answers. 

NCDOT recently got in trouble with the legislature, state treasurer and state auditor for grossly mismanaging funds. The department stooped beneath its statutorily mandated cash floor after a series of missteps, brought on by lagging federal disaster reimbursements and by bleeding out its reserves, gutted by a series of legal settlements. After a 2016 N.C. Supreme Court ruling found NCDOT’s practice of indefinitely reserving large chunks of private land for unfunded projects unconstitutional, the department paid out hundreds of millions in settlement payments.

Zimmer pointed out the Map Act (which falsely empowered NCDOT to take and hold the land without payment) was passed by the legislature. 

Barfield grilled NCDOT representatives, asking repeatedly for indemnification on behalf of WMPO should it get sued for the tolling project. In 2011, WMPO filed a corridor map on behalf of NCDOT to freeze land for the Hampstead Bypass. A developer sued both NCDOT and WMPO in a costly court battle the parties settled in April.

NCDOT representatives could offer no such assurances off the cuff.

After meeting with a consultant of the tolling developer, Barfield said the representative told him the toll would be “somewhere north of a dollar” going in both directions (NCDOT was aware of the preliminary tolling figure but considered that information highly confidential). 

He also wondered why NCDOT wanted WMPO’s feedback now if it unilaterally killed Cape Fear Crossing without any input, and questioned why the Cape Fear Memorial wasn’t already put on a STIP.

“This should have been done many moons ago,” he said. “My question is, why was this not done if this was so important for our region?”

The Hampstead Bypass, a roughly $300 million effort, will alleviate congestion at an intersection with half the traffic, a reality Anderson pried out of NCDOT officials after a line of questioning. “I don’t know how Hampstead got prioritized over this.”

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