Monday, April 22, 2024

Hampstead Bypass, S. Front Street widening projects could be completed sooner than expected

Construction on phase one of the Hampstead Bypass is underway, and if approved, the second phase could start earlier than anticipated. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The region’s transportation planning agency is considering making some project swaps that would accelerate the completion of the Hampstead Bypass — long-awaited road construction to ease traffic near the U.S. 17 corridor in Pender and northern New Hanover counties.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation is developing its next 10-year strategic planning document that details the timeline for its statewide projects. The 2024-2033 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program will be finalized next summer, but the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has the chance to alter the schedule for regional projects beforehand.

READ MORE: State diverts $193M in sales tax to NCDOT, impacts over a dozen Cape Fear transportation projects

At its Wednesday board meeting, WMPO and NCDOT presented two “swap” scenarios — allowed in the latest STIP draft. Due to a lack of funding, NCDOT did not undergo its usual two-year re-prioritization process, therefore it’s allowing MPOs to make changes as needed. One scenario — which would impact a handful of projects — would move up the Hampstead Bypass completion by at least one year, if not sooner.

Construction on the second phase of the project — 6 miles from N.C. 140 to west of N.C. 210 — was originally planned for fall or winter 2026. Consensus among the WMPO board was to choose the route that would accelerate that timeline. NCDOT Division 3 engineer Chad Kimes said, in reality, if the swap is approved, construction could begin in July 2025.

This would allow for the entire bypass to be completed one year earlier, in 2029, instead of 2030.

To push up the timeline, the WMPO suggested delaying a $26.8-million project by two years. Construction on the interchange at Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and Kerr Avenue could move from a 2026 start date to 2028. 

In turn, it would affect the schedule for converting U.S. 17 to a “superstreet” — also known as a reduced-conflict intersection, basically eliminating left turns from side roads. Improvements on U.S. 17, originally scheduled for 2026, would not begin until the bypass is complete. 

The $36-million improvements to U.S. 17 would be funded for the preliminary engineering phase only, meaning no construction timeline is scheduled. 

“From my standpoint, it makes logical sense to complete the Hampstead Bypass prior to starting work on the only road [U.S. 17] we have opened up there,” WMPO chair and Pender County commissioner David Piepmeyer said at Wednesday’s meeting.

U.S. 17 construction would impact the area south of Washington Acres Road through Hampstead to north of Sloop Point Road. Its purpose is to reduce congestion and enhance safety along a heavily traveled corridor, which averages 30,000 vehicles daily.

Improvements along U.S. 17 from Washington Acres to Sloop Point Road could be delayed until after the Hampstead Bypass is completed. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

NCDOT broke ground in March on phase one of the Hampstead Bypass. Crews are set up from N.C. 210, connecting to U.S. 17, north of Topsail schools and then north of Hampstead. A $185-million contract was awarded in January to Conti Civil LLC out of Edison to construct the four-lane, 7.6-mile portion of highway. All is on track and no changes are being made to it; therefore, phase one is expected to open by fall 2026.

Upon completion, the $429-million bypass will be nearly 13 miles long. NCDOT estimates 60,000 vehicles will cross the road each day.

The board discussed other projects within the swap that could impact more than just the bypass: the widening of South Front Street, namely. The construction is not funded in the 2024-2033 STIP draft, but the N.C. State Ports Authority requested its addition. The plan includes broadening U.S. 421 — South Front Street — from the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge to Burnett Boulevard from two lanes to four.

“The South Front Street widening has been a priority for the ports for many years; it’s pretty much the front door to the ports,” WMPO director Mike Kozlosky explained to Port City Daily. “Obviously, there’s capacity issues there, so by widening it from two to four lanes would help improve mobility along that corridor.”

In the first-released 2024-2033 STIP draft from April, there was no funding for the street. The plan was reevaluated in August when the department of transportation received nearly $200 million in extra funding from state sales tax revenues; the project was moved to preliminary engineering only — the first step in a four-part process — so no timeline is given for utility work, right-of-way acquisition, or construction.

“We would like to accelerate it even more to have a committed right-of-way and construction date,” Kozlosky said.

A start date for the $23.5-million endeavor will not be determined until all project swaps are approved, slated to happen by early next spring.

City council member Luke Waddell mentioned moving the CSX railroad tracks to the western side of South Front during construction. The city, along with WMPO and NCDOT, are working on a rail realignment project to relocate the rail line over the Cape Fear River. Moving this portion while construction is already underway would kickstart the project.

Waddell noted the city would be able to contribute to the $3.5 million cost increase since it’s considered a priority.

Along with adding in South Front Street, the board is suggesting a second project be included as well.

Intersection improvements at Greenville Loop and Oleander Drive — currently not funded — could be swapped in at a price tag of $7.9 million. Both additions would push out a $22.6-million proposed project at Market Street to create a four-lane divided road from CSX Railroad to Cinema Drive, and Jacksonville Street to north of College Road.

According to NCDOT, the changes would improve connectivity, decrease the frequency of accidents and congestion along Market Street.

Kozlosky explained the Market Street project is broken into three phases: the first, from Marsh Oaks Drive to Middle Sound Loop, is under construction now. The next two would consist of Station Road to College, and then College back to Colonial Drive. Both are funded for right-of-way acquisition in 2027 and construction in 2029.

“It’s a very long project,” he told the board Wednesday, “so from staff’s perspective, we thought it would make sense to construct it from north to south and build it in two different phases, which means two different timelines.”

The swap would retain work from College to Station roads; construction for College Road to Colonial Drive would then become unfunded for a later start date.

WMPO staff also will reconsider the timeline for the Military Cutoff/Eastwood Road interchange. WMPO board member and NHC commissioner vice chair Deb Hays, backed by Wrightsville Beach Mayor Pro Tem Hank Miller, suggested its completion is changed out to help mitigate traffic backup at Oleander and College. The project is currently funded for preliminary engineering only but was not considered a top priority by WMPO.

According to WMPO’s congestion dashboard, College Road is considered one of the worst for reliability. It averages 45,000 vehicles daily, with Oleander bringing another 25,000.

By comparison, Military Cutoff averages 38,000 vehicles daily, with Eastwood tacking on an additional 22,000. Identified as a top priority by WMPO, it is currently scheduled for construction in 2025 and requires more than $65 million for completion.

Yet, Hays told fellow members construction already underway for Drysdale Drive improvements — a $3.8 million extension of Drysdale Drive from Landfall to Eastwood — could alleviate some issues in the area.

“I’m not trying to change the total direction of what the board has put into play, but there’s been a lot of discussion and thought process that the extension of Drysdale will help dramatically,” Hays said, suggesting it could alleviate congestion. “And we might be able to push the project down the road a couple years.”

Kozlosky said WMPO staff would look into it and bring back some proposals at the next meeting.

Otherwise, the WMPO board reached consensus on the project swaps and will vote on a resolution for approval at its Nov. 30 meeting. 

All swaps must be submitted and agreed upon by NCDOT by March 17, 2023.

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