Monday, September 26, 2022

City considers combining CF Memorial Bridge replacement, rail realignment as one project

Cape Fear Crossing could relieve congestion on Cape Fear Memorial bridge and improve traffic and freight flow between Wilmington and Brunswick County. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
The City of Wilmington released an RFQ for consulting firms to consider combining the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement and the Wilmington Rail Realignment.. (Port City Daily photo/file)

WILMINGTON — Cape Fear officials have been battling methods of replacing the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, which reaches its end of life within 10 to 20 years. Some contentious solutions have been broached, such as adding a toll to help cover costs, but not without pushback from quite a few city and county officials and residents.

A proposal is in the works, with a bridge crossing the Cape Fear River that combines both roadway and rail converging two imminent city projects: the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement and the Wilmington Rail Realignment.

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

The memorial bridge remains a high priority that costs the state at least half-a-million annually in repairs. The Wilmington Rail Realignment project — a potential billion-dollar plan proposed in 2014 — includes reorienting current rail tracks within the city to avoid crossing busy intersections. More importantly, it would provide direct rail access from Navassa’s railyard to Wilmington’s ports.

The City of Wilmington is seeking design services and professional consulting firms to “evaluate the conceptual potential and potential synergies of a shared use bridge structure,” according to the request for qualifications document that was released Tuesday.

The RFQ is listed as a collaborative effort among the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the City of Wilmington and the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

The solicitation is merely in the beginning stages of a future plan. All three entities would have to approve it as a solution before moving forward.

Consultants are asked to create a design that tackles the projects both as one and independently. The end goal is to support at least 200-feet of a fixed span high-rise bridge. 

Responses from potential companies are due back to the city by Aug. 30. A city subcommittee will then review all applications and announce a “shortlist” of firms Sept. 13. The committee will interview the selected few and make a final decision Oct. 3. The selected firm would then consult with local officials on a potential design and help weigh the options of pursuing a combined plan.

NCDOT released four preliminary options for the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial in January 2020; one was a drawbridge accommodating railroad tracks.

Based on previous PCD reporting, NCDOT called the move “tricky” based on the weight of trains versus vehicular traffic. Supporting rail operations would require different infrastructure and engineering.

Navassa, which houses Davis Yard, runs one to two CSX freight trains weekly to the North Carolina State Ports Authority. A future projection estimates up to eight will travel between the two areas by 2025. 

The city allocated $3.5-million to rail realignment efforts in 2022 and identified six potential routes, narrowed down to two before one was chosen last November. It would tie to the Wilmington Terminal Railroad line at Greenfield Street, move down the west side of South Front Street before crossing the river. The track would parallel U.S. 421 and eventually connect to an existing CSX Transportation line in Navassa.

The U.S. Coast Guard has also reviewed the possibility of a rail line crossing the river to bypass existing freight line and eliminate 32 street crossings. The proposed route would only intersect with one road, Dawson Street.

The coast guard issued an April 4 letter stating it “does not foresee anything that would prevent a bridge permit from being issued.” However, it also said a proposed bridge should provide 135 feet of vertical clearance and at least 250 feet of horizontal clearance.

The rail realignment is currently undergoing a federal environmental review led by the Federal Railroad Administration before construction begins. 

According to the RFQ, consulting firms applying for the job should be able to perform geotechnical research, access the practicability of combined footings (which would support the needed weight), attach drawings and renderings and analyze the pros and cons of completing the work as one instead of two projects.

This is the one of the first options that has been presented on the bridge replacement since Cape Fear officials reviewed an unsolicited proposal from anonymous private investors last summer. 

Past plans have included demolishing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge after a new one is built, to retain connectivity across the river during construction. 

Two years ago, NCDOT estimated a new bridge built south of the existing one would cost $200 million. Other design options range up to $600 million. 

NCDOT has said it was spending more on maintenance — $500,000 annually plus at least $5 million in rehab each decade — than it would to build anew. Not to mention replacement parts for the 1969 bridge are becoming increasingly more difficult to find, it indicated in 2020.

Yet, last summer the state agency also said funding its replacement was highly “unlikely” any time soon.

Over the past three years, the state agency faced cash-flow issues due to settling millions with property owners during Map Act lawsuits and doling out hundreds of millions in storm-related costs. It put roughly 900 projects on hold because of it. 

Therefore, the bridge project has taken a back burner.

In March, NCDOT approached WMPO with a three-pronged approach to the replacement of the bridge: traditional delivery, use of a conventional toll and alternative options, such as private proposals.

NCDOT is slated to bring its findings before the WMPO board at its regular meeting July 27.

Port City Daily sent a public records request to NCDOT on April 5 asking for all emails and documents related to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge since 2020. NCDOT denied PCD’s request July 14.

“Regarding your PRR,” representatives emailed, “at this time all documents, including emails, are confidential and cannot be released. This is due to it not being an awarded project.”

This article has been updated to reflect NCDOT did respond to all follow-ups on the PRR. Port City Daily regrets this error.


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