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Friday, May 24, 2024

Draft of NCDOT’s latest 10-year plan could fund hundreds of Cape Fear transportation projects

Gordon Road, a highly trafficked east-west thoroughfare, could be widened in a few years through NCDOT’s 2024-2033 STIP. (Port City Daily/file)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The construction of a bike lane in Carolina Beach, an extension of Wilmington’s Independence Boulevard, a new taxiway at the Wilmington International Airport, the widening of Gordon Road: There are 116 projects estimated at $1.5 billion slated for the tri-county area over the next 10 years, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

The projects are part of the 2024-2033 proposal of NCDOT’s Strategic Transportation Improvement Plan, which lays out possible funding sources and schedules to move forward submitted plans. 

It’s still unclear whether these projects will be seen through to completion, based on funding. The STIP, typically comprising a $22-billion budget, was developed under “unique circumstances” for the next 10-year cycle, according to NCDOT. Due to increasing material and labor costs, local and regional transportation planning agencies recommended forgoing its usual two-year prioritization process.

When NCDOT re-examined all submitted projects, it realized STIP was over-programmed by at least $2 billion. In August 2021, due to a lack of funds, the North Carolina Board of Transportation decided to halt the current prioritization cycle. 

The updated draft instead consists solely of existing projects in the current 2020-2029 STIP, placing priority on ones with money already committed. Since more projects were not able to be added, the new system allows for organizations to propose project swaps.

“Priorities can shift, especially in a unique situation like we’re in now. It may mean funding priorities have changed,” NCDOT spokesperson Aaron Moody said.

The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, serving 494 square miles of southeastern North Carolina, will coordinate which projects get switched out. The only caveat is the swapped project cannot exceed 10% of the cost of the one it’s replacing.

Swaps must be submitted by Sept. 30 and can only be interchanged once. Stakeholders also have the opportunity to swap around schedules, allowing a funded project to start construction sooner, for example.

The WMPO plays a key role in helping prioritize projects within the STIP based on local needs. Its top “unfunded” priority remains the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement. The fact that it’s still considered unfunded means there is no set date for work to begin, but NCDOT is looking into alternative options.

READ MORE: NCDOT reveals 3-pronged approach to Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement

Top projects considered funded — meaning there is a source of revenue assigned for construction — were adopted in September 2020 by the WMPO board.

According to WMPO executive director Mike Kozlosky, the Hampstead Bypass, Independence Boulevard Extension, the interchange at Kerr and MLK Parkway, the interchange at Market, Eastwood and MILK Parkway, and the interchange at Eastwood, Military Cutoff Road are top-of-mind in the Cape Fear region.

In total, those projects will need $755.3 million to be fully constructed. Right now, all have a future projected construction date, except the Market, Eastwood and MLK interchange, which has only been funded for preliminary engineering.

Improvements noted in the STIP also include multi-use paths for extended bike and pedestrian connections, roadway expansions to ease traffic along heavily congested roads and support for public transportation.

Following public comment opportunities and review by local organizations, a revised draft STIP will be released in December and, ultimately, approved by the North Carolina Board of Transportation in summer 2023.

The NCDOT has selected Stantec to engineer the Hampstead Bypass from I-140 to U.S. 17 (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY STANTEC)
The NCDOT has selected Stantec to engineer the Hampstead Bypass from I-140 to U.S. 17 (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY STANTEC)

A breakdown of WMPO’s top priorities

Hampstead Bypass

Funded by the State Highway Trust Funds, construction on the first phase of the new road began in March with a $185-million contract to Conti Civil out of Edison, New Jersey. $230,988,000 funds are still needed to complete this initial northern portion.

The four-lane, 7-mile highway will run south of N.C. 210 and connect to U.S. 17, north of Topsail schools. It’s expected to open by fall 2026.

The second portion of the bypass, from US 17 south of Hampstead to NC 210, is slated for construction in 2027, with $143,860,000 still needed. Planning and design work and right-of-way acquisition is in progress.

Independence Boulevard Extension

Funded by the Federal Surface Transportation Block Grant Program, the extension will improve travel time and reduce congestion for drivers heading north and south from central Wilmington. NCDOT plans to extend Independence Boulevard near Covil and Montgomery avenues 1.7 miles from Randall Parkway to MLK Parkway.

Right-of-way acquisition and utility work is scheduled for 2027, with construction projected for 2029. $193,974,000 are needed to complete the job.

Interchange at Kerr and MLK

Also funded by the Federal Surface Transportation Block Grant Program, the interchange was introduced to Wilmignton residents in a public meeting in April 2017, and right-of-way acquisition is in progress. 

It’s scheduled to begin construction in 2027 and $26,800,000 are needed to bring it to fruition.

Interchange at Market, Eastwood and MLK

The State Highway Trust Fund will bankroll the project, which is combined with a US 17 Market Street plan to improve the roadway north of US 117/NC 132 (College Road) to Station Road. Right-of-way acquisition is in progress, and it’s funded for preliminary engineering only. The total remaining funds needed are $91,200,000.

Interchange at Eastwood and Military Cutoff

The Federal National Highway Performance Program will cover the right-of-way acquisition and utility work, which are scheduled for 2023. Construction is projected to begin in 2026 and the total remaining funds needed are $66,400,000.

Additional Cape Fear projects included in STIP 

Other major line items impacting the Cape Fear region include $680,000 for the Wilmington Rail Trail, connecting 3rd Street downtown to Love Grove Park. There is also $5 million planned for the Wilmington International Airport to extend its runway and $103 million for various improvements along College Road.

There are 78 New Hanover County projects in the draft STIP, with 10 unfunded at this time and nine funded for preliminary engineering only. There are eight projects slated in the bike/pedestrian category, requiring $5.1 million, all of which will begin construction between 2022 and 2024 including:

  • Bike lanes along St. Joseph Avenue and Lewis Drive from Lake Park Boulevard to Access Drive in Carolina Beach
  • Along Clarendon Avenue from 4th Street to Dow Road
  • Harbour Drive to Shipyard Boulevard
  • Ogden Elementary Schools to Oyster Drive
  • Market Street from Red Cedar Road to an existing trail at the corner of Market and Middle Sound Loop Road
  • Construction of the Middle Sound Loop Connector and Porters Neck Walmart Connector
  • Signalized pedestrian crossing at Market Street and 21st Street
  • Wilmington Rail Trail from 3rd Street in downtown Wilmington to the Love Grove Bridge

The Wilmington International Airport has 11 projects included in the draft, five of which are not currently funded. Only one has a projected construction date. In 2028 phase one of extending its runway for $5 million will begin.

Additional snapshots of highway projects (the bulk of the categories) include:

  • US 421 to 1-140 pavement and bridge rehabilitation, $7.3 million, scheduled for 2028
  • College Road access management and travel time improvements, funded for preliminary engineering, requiring $103 million
  • Constructing a new route from 23rd Street to 26th Street for an economic development project, $9.1 million, 2024
  • Kerr Avenue interchange at US 74, MLK Parkway; right-of-way acquisition in process, $26.8 million, 2027
  • Independence Boulevard Extension: construct multiple lanes on Randall Parkway to U.S. 74, $193.1 million, 2029
  • Military Cutoff Road Extension, under construction, remaining funds needed $79.5 million
  • CSX SE Line: Improvements to highway grade crossings, close and improve various existing at-grade crossings; tie and rail rehabilitation, curve realignment and upgrade rail bridges, $31.5 million needed, begin 2022-2023
  • Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority: Projects include ADA improvements, administration costs, a mobility manager, operating assistance, planning assistance, preventative maintenance, upgrading amenities and bus stops and replacing buses and trolleys. $32.1 million is needed.

There are 12 projects slated for Pender County, three of which are not funded. The largest funded project for Pender County is the first half of the Hampstead Bypass from NC 210 to US 17 north of Hampstead for $231 million. There is also $20.4 million allocated to the Henderson Field airport for extending its runway and apron.

Brunswick County features 26 projects in the STIP with four not funded. The most significant project, already under construction, is widening Midway Road to NC 87 with additional lanes with $249.8 million still needed for completion. 

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