WILMINGTON — Urged by the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) passed a resolution Wednesday to consider all possible funding options for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement. After being voted down last summer, tolling emerged again at the forefront of discussion.
The heated topic was not met without strong disapproval from some.
A critical link between Brunswick and New Hanover counties, the 50-plus-year-old bridge is reaching the end of its usable lifespan. More than 62,000 vehicles cross per day. Replacement parts are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain and maintenance costs are rising, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). Having faced ongoing cash flow issues over the last few years, NCDOT is limited on the projects it can fund.
“Even if it’s not a funded priority, it’s a critical local priority,” chamber director Natalie English told WMPO board members.
Discussions to replace the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge surfaced seven months after NCDOT presented an offer from a private investor. The company intended to bankroll the construction of a new bridge by instituting tolls for at least 50 years. The proposal was sent in late 2020 by a team of construction and engineering firms, supported by anonymous financial backers, who would assume the risk involved with design, construction and maintenance of the project for a time. NCDOT would retain its ownership and oversight for regular inspections.
WMPO voted against it, 7-5, in July 2021.
English told WMPO board members her public policy committee was informed by state transportation officials that any unfunded state projects at this time would not be considered for its State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), a multi-year capital plan scheduling and funding state projects. Both federal and state money is allocated for projects.
The chamber released a resolution the day before WMPO’s Wednesday board meeting.
“We wanted you to hear us loud and clear: We want to consider every option on the table,” English said.
The chamber’s mission is to support regional businesses, but English does not have a seat at the table for WMPO decision-making.
According to WMPO meeting minutes from June 30, 2021, Chad Kimes, NCDOT division 3 engineer, told the board routine maintenance on the bridge costs about half-a-million dollars annually. Plus, $15 million in major rehabilitation work was done recently. Kimes also noted, based on traditional methods for funding through NCDOT’s prioritization process, the likelihood of financing the replacement bridge in the next 10-year STIP is “highly improbable.”
WMPO chair David Piepmeyer said back in June the unsolicited proposal would be a way to pay for the bridge more quickly. Kimes explained NCDOT faces hurdles regarding capacity for new projects and financing. He added, “the tier that would be needed to fund this project would not cover the $200 to $400 million rough estimate.”
On July 28, 2021, WMPO received 19 public comments and heard from seven in-person speakers regarding the proposal to replace the bridge. All but one, who was on the fence, were adamantly against the idea. Reasons varied from the cost it would take for many to commute, to the lack of transparency around the proposal leaving many unanswered questions, to traffic congestion it would cause elsewhere, to comments of downright opposition.
The WMPO board proceeded with a lengthy debate, ending without support of the proposal. Yet, Kure Beach commissioner John Ellen, New Hanover County commissioner Deb Hays, Wrightsville Beach mayor pro-tem Hank Miller, Brunswick County commissioner Frank Williams and N.C. Board of Transportation member Landon Zimmer were in favor of moving forward with evaluating the offer.
Controversy arose again during Wednesday’s discussions. WMPO also received resolutions from Brunswick County and the Town of Leland. Brunswick County’s echoed Wilmington chamber’s calling for exploration of all options.
The Town of Leland’s resolution asked for NCDOT to include the project in the STIP, even though it did not score high enough on the department’s prioritization scale.
NCDOT will receive about $1.5 billion from the Infrastructure Bill, signed into law in November, to infuse into the 10-year STIP program.
“What that tells you, it’s going to keep the first few years on schedule, but after that we’re still not going to be able to add projects, especially larger dollar amount projects,” Kimes said at the meeting.
Board member and New Hanover County commissioner Jonathan Barfield, vocally opposing the idea from the beginning, told fellow members the toll bridge was already voted down once, so he didn’t see why it was being discussed again.
“The word ‘all options,’ I’m cool with,” he said. “As long as it doesn’t include a toll.”
City councilmember Charlie Rivenbark, also represented on the WMPO board, was hesitant to cross that bridge again.
“Before I would ever raise my hand again, I want someone to show me some damn support,” he said. “I want some room for cover. Because last time, well, I don’t want to go through that again. I lost a friend over this.”
Member and county commissioner Deb Hays continued to express a desire to see all options on the table, including further review of last year’s tolling proposal.
“It doesn’t mean we’re voting on any, but I want to see them laid out; I want to understand them,” she said. “What else is out there? If the toll is the only option, what else can we do to enhance that, make it more palatable?”
Members agreed the bridge is an important element, a vital economic connector for the region, for all entities involved — county and city organizations throughout New Hanover and Brunswick.
“There’s four answers: Wait 40 years; there’s the toll; there’s it falls in one day and something bad happens … and only then and there will you finally get the attention you need, or this new one to find pockets of money elsewhere,” board member and Wilmington city councilmember Neil Anderson said.
Kozlosky explained “pockets of money” would likely mean grants, usually requiring a state match. He added it would be difficult to obtain any, since the state has already said the project is not a priority in its STIP.
According to Kimes, the reason it didn’t make the list, even though it was considered, is because it did not score high enough on NCDOT’s metric system, which is data-driven. The projects are evaluated not only by NCDOT but also by WMPO’s local need.
As of now, there is currently no funding available for future projects and the STIP is already over-budgeted by about $12 billion. The STIP is evaluated every two years to update its ongoing 10-year plan.
Even if the WMPO board wanted to revisit the unsolicited proposal, it’s not clear whether that would be an option, and it would still take years to fully flesh out, Kimes added. The board would be required to specifically ask NCDOT to revisit the proposal before it can be done.
Considering alternative funding options could include new proposals from additional companies, commissioner Williams explained: “They’re not the only game in town.”
WMPO passed a resolution, 9-3, to consider all possible options, including tolling and previous proposals for funding the replacement of the bridge.
Barfield, Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman and Navassa Mayor Eulis Willis were opposed. No action was intended to be taken, as the agenda only noted it as a discussion item.
“I would recommend in the future when you have something weighted this heavy, with as much conversation in our community we’ve had in the past, you might want to have it on the agenda prior to,” Barfield said. “It’s too heavy of a topic to just stroll in with someone passing a resolution.”
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