SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Options remain bleak for the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, as local leaders continue to debate the best way to proceed and whether it should include tolling drivers crossing into New Hanover from Brunswick County.
Regional officials gathered during Wednesday’s Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting to hear about various recourse and funding methods to get the project off the ground — a debate that has been ongoing for some time now. The bridge is nearing the end of its 50-year lifespan, with anywhere from a decade to 20 years left in its use.
The traditional way of financing state projects through the North Carolina Department of Transportation remains unlikely, the agency confirmed at the meeting. WMPO members — which includes 13 representatives from the tri-county region, plus a member from the N.C. Board of Transportation — are the only ones who can approve the new infrastructure but reaching a consensus has yet to happen.
In February, the WMPO board voted 9-3 in support of a resolution to consider “all options” for replacing the aging infrastructure. From this, NCDOT created a subcommittee — comprising NCDOT staff members, North Carolina Turnpike Authority members and WMPO director Mike Kozlosky — devoted to analyzing a three-pronged approach: traditional, conventional toll and alternative methods.
While tolling remains the least favorable option, it also appears to be narrowing in as one of the most practical ones.
To accurately identify all possible options for funding the bridge’s replacement, NCDOT’s committee first had to update estimates from its feasibility study performed in May 2020.
Projected costs have increased from 50% to 75% on all four options:
- A fixed span 65-foot vertical clearance jumped from $196.6M to $241.2M
- 135-foot fixed span rose from $245.7M to $391.5M
- Moveable span 65-foot vertical clearance increased from $487.7M to $701.6M
- Moveable span 65-foot vertical clearance, with the railroad track component went from $608.7M to $899.6M
Last week, the City of Wilmington, in collaboration with WMPO and NCDOT, sent out a request for qualifications seeking design options for the fourth possibility, combining rail and highway. Firms are being 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.
According to prior PCD reporting, NCDOT division 3 engineer Chad Kimes said in 2020, the U.S. Coast Guard would be hesitant to entertain the least expensive, fixed 65-foot span option as it would reduce clearance needed for ships.
Kimes also iterated, while the bridge does need to be replaced, it “is perfectly safe” right now.
Currently, its maintenance costs continue to rise. NCDOT is spending at least half-a-million annually on repairs and another $15 million was spent in 2019 on major rehabilitation work.
A feasibility study done in May 2020 concluded the bridge is “functionally obsolete.”
“Our biggest fear on the moveable span [of the bridge] is what will break next,” Kimes told the board Wednesday. “There are very few moveable spans left in the division and we’re slowly replacing all of them.”
The bigger problem remains: Funding for all options did not score high enough in NCDOT’s 10-year Statewide Transportation Improvement Program. The prioritization process is a scientific method that evaluates criteria of each project under consideration.
Kimes explained Wednesday the bridge replacement scored 40%, and only projects in the 20th percentile are even considered for statewide funding. Money comes out of three pots: statewide, regionally and divisionally. If it were financed out of regional or divisional allocations, it would essentially prevent any other project from being considered over the next 10-year STIP period due to its high expense.
City councilman Luke Waddell suggested the NCDOT re-evaluate its STIP scoring criteria, to which New Hanover commissioner vice-chair Deb Hays agreed. The process to alter the law would likely take longer than funding the project and could impact future projects, WMPO chair David Piepmeyer responded.
Waddell also was among a handful of WMPO members who pointed out that multimillion dollar infrastructure projects were happening all across the state, particularly in the Triangle. In effect, many suggested the greater Wilmington area — which has grown by 44% since 2010 in the tri-county region — is being overlooked.
“[The bridge] supports our growing ports, it should take high priority other than an additional interstate for folks to go from Raleigh to Charlotte faster,” Waddell said. “Folks in southeastern North Carolina are just as much North Carolinians and they expect that representation.”
New Hanover County commissioner Jonathan Barfield concurred: “There are so many projects taking place across the state but somehow a bridge, the main artery in and out of the only urban county east of 95, can’t get funding. Someone needs to help me understand DOT.”
NCDOT will begin its next round of evaluations in spring 2023; Kimes agreed to enter the bridge for consideration. But it remains “unlikely” to be funded.
David Roy, chief financial officer for the N.C. Turnpike Authority, presented the tolling option to the board — at least half of whom were against pursuing it. According to general statute, toll projects must be approved by all affected transportation planning organizations to move forward with the process. It would then be evaluated by NCDOT’s toll project development policy prior to being submitted to the STIP.
The cost to implement a toll, which would not be the typical toll-booth format but instead require transponders or bill-by-mail options, would be roughly $567 million. This includes construction, rights-of-way, utilities, tolling technology, landscape and agency costs based on an assumed opening date of 2030 (therefore including estimated inflation).
By calculating the 50-year maintenance costs for the bridge — including cleaning, repairs, stabilization, paving, upgrading or replacing the tolling technology, etc. — incorporating a toll would cover a large portion of the bridge’s replacement but not all of it, Roy explained.
Toll revenues must be used to support the toll project in its entirety. As a result, the money could offset a “significant portion” of the cost, which makes it more appealing in the STIP process at a lower price tag.
Many WMPO board members spoke on behalf of the residents they represent and still strongly oppose the burden a toll what put on drivers. Waddell been adamant about protecting City of Wilmington taxpayers from increased costs during recent budget sessions. He said he would vote against the toll option, especially before a public acceptance study was done.
“I have a hard time understanding why the Cape Fear region is being used as a beta test for existing roadways projects,” he said at the meeting. “The folks I represent in the city need to understand why they’ll foot the bill on an aging infrastructure, which would also create a huge shift in commuting behavior as a result of a toll.”
Based on preliminary research, Waddell found about one-fourth, or 12,500, of Brunswick County residents commute to New Hanover County for work. If those individuals can’t handle the cost of a daily toll, on top of inflation and gas prices, they would likely take a different route, such as the Isabel Holmes Bridge. As a result, the wear and tear on the city’s other roadways and infrastructure would take a serious hit, Waddell explained.
Barfield, again, echoed Waddell’s sentiments. “I’m not sure folks could stomach that kind of cost.”
Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman went so far as calling the whole process “broken.”
“Why do all we hear is tolling, tolling, tolling?” she said. “While you’re at it, toll all the beaches, too, even the Hampstead Bypass. If you want to toll one, toll them all. It was very under-handed how it was brought forth.”
Piepmeyer sided with tolling more positively.
“We discount tourism paying for that bridge,” he said. “Think how many people not living in this state travel across that bridge and help to pay for it. A pay-for-use is the best form of paying for anything.”
Roy reminded the board, if tolls are used to pay off the bridge’s debt, it’s not in perpetuity. Once it’s paid for, the tolls would be removed. The time period would be dependent on how much is charged, but would likely be about 50 years.
Others on the board were less invested one way or another. Wrightsville Beach Mayor Pro Tem Hank Miller said he would follow the lead of the New Hanover and Brunswick counties’ officials.
NCDOT’s Kimes explained WMPO could be eligible for additional funding opportunities, such as a bonus allocation, if it implemented a toll project. The eligibility and amount are dependent on the financing plan, but there is a maximum award of $100 million.
A request for information was sent out nationally April 25 for alternative methods of either constructing or funding the bridge’s replacement. After the May 26 deadline, nine submissions were received.
They all varied in buildability concepts, financing options and project viability, including considerations of environmental, legal, engineering, technical and financial aspects.
Of the submissions, all but one suggested entering into a public-private partnership, or P3.
Also on the table is the unsolicited proposal from United Bridge Partners, received in late 2020. It sparked heated debate among board members last fall as they first began discussing a toll bridge option. Gene Conti, a representative with the Colorado-based company — which focuses solely on implementing toll bridges nationwide — spoke to the board Wednesday during the public comment section.
He said UBP has “cash in hand” and can start work as soon as it’s authorized to do so.
“Nobody likes tolls,” Conti said. “I’d rather not pay them, but I do know they’re a solution that works when you can’t find other funding.”
He used the Triangle Expressway in Raleigh as an example. He said the road could be built in three years or 25; Raleigh leadership chose to incorporate tolls to have the road constructed more quickly.
“Same thing with the Monroe Expressway,” the toll road on U.S. 74 in Charlotte, he added.
Leland Mayor Bozeman did not like the idea of putting the bridge “in the hands of a private entity.”
On the other hand, Piepmeyer said public-private partnerships “are the most successful” projects, in his opinion.
“They usually run on budget, run on time, usually do almost everything outlined in the vision and project plan,” he said.
Even if WMPO chose an alternative option or went with UBP’s proposal, it still has to clear the STIP process.
Upon WMPO choosing an avenue for the bridge replacement, it could begin looking into grant opportunities, Kimes explained. The administrative costs to apply for those grants would be covered by NCDOT.
The challenge: No grant is guaranteed and there is usually a local match between 20% to 50% required. At this time, the WMPO does not have funding allocated to support a match for any grant.
Most require a preliminary design as well, which the WMPO doesn’t have currently. Kimes estimated costs roughly in the $40 million range.
WMPO would have to secure at least preliminary funding, no matter the route taken. An exact amount is being determined by NCDOT and will be presented to the board in a follow-up meeting. There also would need to be public involvement and a pre-screening process conducted by the WMPO, followed by a traffic and revenue study. This could all be done within a year or so.
Once that happens, design and permitting can take place. National Environmental Policy Act documents, too, will be needed to identify risks of proposed construction.
Brunswick County commissioner vice chair Mike Forte said he’s been on the WMPO board for six years, and during his entire reign, it’s been discussing the bridge issue.
“We’re further behind than we were six years ago,” he said. “We know our area is the largest growing area in the state and here we are fighting over what will amount to pennies when you consider tolling. We’re not getting a river crossing without tolls. It’s not going to happen in any way on God’s green earth.”
He added the ones agruing against it the most — specifically referring to Leland, Navassa, Belville and Wilmington — are the ones who would also benefit most significantly.
“[I]t doesn’t have a whole lot of years left than it takes to construct it,” Forte said. “Something has to be done. We need to do something. Get off the pot and figure out a way to do this.”
WMPO director Kozlosky said the board could vote to use the division’s direct attributable funds for preliminary engineering, similar to what it did for the Cape Fear Crossing plans that were ultimately dropped in 2019. The proposal would have supported a new bridge connecting New Hanover and Brunswick counties for $1 billion. The state spent $11.45 million on studying the project, which was halted due to public feedback.
Barfield and others worried if WMPO starts new plans before deciding on an ultimate funding route, it could prove fruitless.
“I don’t want to see DOT waste more money in designs that don’t go anywhere because someone decided they don’t want to see it happen,” he said. “$10 million could build a lot of homes and feed a lot of hungry people.”
No action was taken Wednesday. NCDOT will review the comments presented at the meeting and provide follow-up answers to questions on funding for the first phase and what else could be done to make the bridge more appealing in the STIP process.
“We’ve got to get moving,” Hays said, “or the bridge will get worse. Period.”
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