SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Last month, local government entities revisited alternative funding options for the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge — a contentious topic that walks the fine line between necessity and unfavorable financing options. It remains a high priority for officials.
The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization passed a resolution at its February board meeting to ask the North Carolina Department of Transportation to explore all options, including tolls and previous proposals, for replacing the 50-year-old structure. The board also discussed Wednesday its legislative agenda, moving the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge to its highest unfunded priority.
“It goes to the top, stars, highlighted, neon signs going toward it,” WMPO board member and New Hanover County vice chair Deb Hays said at the meeting.
She jokingly added, in reference to NCDOT division 3 engineer Chad Kimes, local state representative: “Can we have it tattooed on Chad’s forehead?”
Kimes provided an update to the board and said a committee — NCDOT staff from the division and in Raleigh, as well a WMPO executive director Mike Kozlosky — was formed almost immediately after the resolution passed last month to begin exploring possibilities.
“We have done a lot in the last few weeks to be honest,” Kimes said. “This is rapid- movement research we’re doing here, but we’re trying to uncover every limb we can.”
The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge provides a key link between Brunswick and New Hanover counties and more than 62,000 vehicles cross it daily. According to NCDOT, the bridge is nearing the end of its usable lifespan. Also, the annual maintenance costs continue to rise, and replacement parts are becoming difficult to obtain.
Kimes told the WMPO board NCDOT is taking a three-pronged approach to the bridge replacement: traditional delivery, conventional toll delivery and alternative delivery.
A traditional design-bid-build project would require the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge to score high on the next round of NCDOT’s State Transportation Improvement Program. The bridge did not score high enough on the last prioritization round, which frustrated local leadership.
The STIP is a multi-year capital plan for scheduling and funding state projects based on a scoring matrix. Federal and state money from various sources is allocated for projects.
While the STIP is a 10-year plan, NCDOT updates it every two years to ensure it accurately matches the department’s financial situation and statewide needs. NCDOT will update a feasibility study for the bridge, including cost estimates, to indicate where the project might fall on the next round of STIP prioritization.
As of now, no funding is available for future projects since NCDOT is over budgeted by about $12 billion; however, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, signed into law in November, should infuse additional money to the state.
A major source of STIP funding is the state’s gas tax. Concerns arose from WMPO board member and New Hanover commissioner Jonathan Barfield about how the state’s clean energy plan and the increased presence of electric vehicles will impact the gas tax.
“As we see more hybrid and electric vehicles on the road, it’s definitely going to offset money coming in from the gas tax for the state,” he said at the meeting. “We need to be having this conversation at a local level and recognize the dollars are dwindling.”
Kimes told board members to analyze traditional funding options, its newly formed committee will research grant programs offered by U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as dig into the provisions outlined in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.
Conventional toll delivery
Initial discussions around the idea of a toll bridge sprung up last summer when an unsolicited bid from a private investor was presented to WMPO by NCDOT. 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.
After much debate and a nearly split stance, WMPO voted against it 7-5 in July 2021.
At last month’s meeting, officials revisited the discussion after the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and Brunswick County passed resolutions expressing their support of alternative options for the bridge replacement. The Town of Leland also passed a resolution asking for the bridge to be included in the STIP.
The WMPO board passed a similar resolution, 9-3 requesting all options be explored.
To pursue the feasibility of this route, NCDOT will look to its Toll Project Development Policy. The guidelines were implemented in 2018 to “improve the department’s ability to manage a reliable transportation network, address congestion, leverage limited financial resources, and provide more user choice,” according to NCDOT’s website.
Per the toll policy, the evaluation of a toll option is calculated with a financial feasibility tool, which considers general project information, traffic, toll pricing and project costs. Ultimately, the results show whether a toll would generate enough revenue to cover its own costs of operation, as well as a portion of the capital costs.
Similar to the unsolicited bid NCDOT received in 2020, alternative options are also in the mix for consideration.
“We would send out a request for information to see if there’s any innovative solutions for another approach,” Kimes told the WMPO board.
According to NCDOT’s phased-in strategy, innovative solutions could include “buildability concepts and financial alternatives.”
As was mentioned at last month’s WMPO meeting, the original proposal is “not the only game in town.” Bids could come from a variety of sources around the nation.
NCDOT said proposals will be screened for viability, including technical, environmental, engineering and legal, as well as financial. All screening analysis will be presented to the WMPO board for consideration prior to further pursuit.
Kimes also said, still, there are some things NCDOT will not consider for funding a replacement bridge. It’s not within its authority to request special assistance or appropriations from the N.C. General Assembly. NCDOT also said local funds will not be included in any analysis unless specifically requested by WMPO.
“We hope to have all this wrapped up by late summer to give you our findings,” Kimes said.
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