Thursday, September 28, 2023

Independence Blvd extension increases by $55M, NCDOT pushes construction to 2028

A $260-million plan is in the works to extend Independence Boulevard by 1.7 miles, to connect to Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. (Courtesy/NCDOT)

WILMINGTON — A project in the works for nearly 50 years and gaining traction over the last decade, has recently come back to light. The N.C. Department of Transportation’s extension of Independence Boulevard would require the relocation of up to 100 properties and some people affected aren’t happy about the move.

The Ivy Cottage owner Drew Keller thought the project had fizzled out. In 2019, NCDOT spent more than $300 million on Map Act lawsuits and $200 million on storm-related expenses. The estimated cost for the extension then was $160 million, with a groundbreaking proposed for 2025.

READ MORE: Independence Boulevard extension project put on shelf

Its cash-flow issues were then compounded by Covid-19. As a result, the department halted nearly 1,000 projects statewide and funding for future projects seemed a ways off.

“When NCDOT ran out of money, we thought we were in the clear,” Keller said. “Then a few months ago, I received some stuff in the mail. So, I guess it’s still moving along.”

The estimated cost for the project now is $214.6 million, with a groundbreaking proposed for 2028.

The Independence Boulevard extension project was first discussed in 1972, its need arising from lack of direct north-south travel routes in Wilmington, causing congestion and frequent traffic backups. 

The plan would extend Independence by 1.7 miles, connecting Randall Parkway to Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, to include two lanes going in each direction, as well as entrance and exit paths. The roadway would also be elevated for much of its length to both cross over CSX railroad crossings and allow pedestrians to travel underneath.

However, in order to do so, NCDOT must relocate between 31 to 38 businesses and 59 to 71 residences.

“These are based on conceptual design and are subject to change as the project progresses,” NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland said.

She added landowners are not typically contacted about purchase offers until the right-of-way acquisition process begins, which is still two years out.

In February, NCDOT launched an outreach campaign and mailed project information to more than 400 addresses, along Montgomery Avenue, 31st Street, Evans Street, Mercer Avenue, Covil Avenue, Independence Boulevard and Market Street. Half of the residents impacted are considered low-income.

NCDOT representatives also went door to door to businesses and residents with a survey. The department held an open house to garner additional feedback and provide access to an online questionnaire.

According to an NCDOT memo, 34 individuals attended the open house and 53 comments were received among all communication methods.

The most popular project concerns included residents having to relocate, the raised highway creating a homelessness gathering, additional safety issues for pedestrians, noise complaints and diminishing property values.

Of the individuals outreach workers spoke to, only half had any knowledge about the project happening at all. As noted by NCDOT, some even felt “disenfranchised” about the ordeal, stating they had no power to change its course anyway.

Keller has owned The Ivy Cottage, an antique consignment store with four buildings in the route’s planned purview, since 2013. He said if he knew of the project seven years ago, it would have changed his investment.

“I never would have purchased this store,” he admitted.

Keller said he’s never been personally contacted by an NCDOT representative but has attended public meetings on the project, including one in 2019 and the most recent held five months ago. While he and his wife were anxiety-ridden the first few years over what’s to come, Keller said now he has learned to accept the inevitable.

“We take it month by month, day by day,” he said. “It’s looming, but we can’t do anything about it.”

The Ivy Cottage will be inoperable once construction begins, including some of the buildings being razed for the route to be completed. Half of the main building’s parking lot will be lost due to the street being widened, also inhibiting access. 

“Even if we are able to survive the project, the construction of it will put us out,” Keller explained. 

He’s also been struggling to relocate and recreate Ivy Cottage’s current layout. He’s considered other locations over the past few years but nothing has panned out.

If he were to move before the project “condemns” the buildings, he will not receive any moving expense assistance, which is determined by the appraisal of the property. Therefore, he’s juggling the need to relocate and ensuring it lines up with the appropriate timing.

For NCDOT to acquire land needed for the project, it hires an independent appraiser to determine fair market value of each property. The appraiser works directly with homeowners and business owners on the process per federal guidelines.

“The right-of-way process varies for each property depending on negotiations, but will be somewhere between six to 18 months per parcel,” Haviland said.

A written offer is made, along with relocation assistance. According to NCDOT’s guidelines, property owners are paid in full prior to having to vacate their land.

Overall, though, Keller doesn’t even see the need to bring the plan to fruition.

“I don’t understand why you would put something that detrimental in the local area,” Keller said. “I don’t think it’s needed. The traffic is not really that bad for what they’re trying to do.”

Some officials tend to disagree. 

An NCDOT traffic forecast reports high demand and increased congestion levels for north-south travel within central Wilmington by 2040.

The project is listed in NCDOT’s State Transportation Improvement Program, a 10-year plan that identifies the construction and funding schedule for statewide projects.

Locally, Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization director Mike Kozlosky said construction of the extended route is one of the WMPO’s top five funded priorities. 

Wilmington has a handful of major connectors for drivers traversing east to west. When it comes to north-south travel, the only significant route is College Road, which, as most residents know, easily backs up any given day of the week. An extension of Independence Boulevard would help alleviate congestion.

Drivers will travel north-south in a straight shot, rather than putting pressure to cut through local side streets.

Due to the heavy traffic projected to enter the Independence Boulevard and Market Street intersection, two designs are being considered to include an overpass.

Both share the same general configuration but utilize a different intersection option. Each would require less land area than a traditional interchange, according to NCDOT.

A north-south green pathway connecting Empie, McRae and Maides parks will run parallel to Independence on the east side. The pedestrian path will not be elevated but will act as a walking corridor.

According to NCDOT, the only other north-south route aside from College Road that allows drivers to travel continuously from Shipyard Boulevard to Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway is Third Street. While Kerr Avenue offers another option and NCDOT has proposed widening it, traffic forecasts still indicate the need for more driving space to carry larger vehicle volumes.

Up next in the project’s timeline is a draft environmental impact statement and a public hearing scheduled for later this year. The goal is for NCDOT to begin right-of-way acquisitions in 2024.

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