SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — While local and state officials have struggled to identify funding for the replacement of the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, a step was taken this week to get the ball rolling.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation identified $2 million from the State Highway Bridge Fund to cover the cost of needed studies.
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The Highway Fund mainly supports projects involving the state’s existing infrastructure, such as resurfacing highways, replacing bridges and paving roads. The money is distributed throughout North Carolina based on need.
NCDOT Division 3 engineer Chad Kimes told the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board at its Wednesday meeting the $2 million will fund a traffic and revenue analysis, as well as kickstart an environmental study.
Kimes said NCDOT would be selecting a firm to perform the traffic and revenue studies — though cannot confirm a deadline for hiring. He hopes the chosen company will have the studies completed by October 2023.
The results will determine potential toll rates and traffic distribution, Kimes said.
The environmental analysis process could take longer — three to five years — and will be conducted by another outside consultant, likely a design engineering firm. The money will cover the expense of hiring both companies.
Kimes explained to the WMPO board that some information gathered when NCDOT and WMPO explored the Cape Fear Crossing can be re-used but not all of it.
In the works for a quarter-century, the project was a $1-billion planned bridge to connect New Hanover and Brunswick counties as a replacement to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. The state spent more than $11 million studying the project, which was put on hold in 2019 after public opposition and a lack of funding in the State Transportation Improvement Program.
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WMPO director Mike Kozlosky explained once complete, the studies will help the state identify other potential bridge-funding opportunities — specifically federal grants, according to Kimes.
The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is one of more than 13,500 state-owned bridges and of the 8.2% considered in poor condition. According to NCDOT, though the bridge is still safe, it has deteriorating components that require significant maintenance.
“To fully address the issues on a poor condition bridge, extensive rehabilitation or replacement is usually required,” the NCDOT states.
The agency most recently inspected the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge in December 2021. A report noted nearly 100 requests for “priority action” upkeep, ranging from exposed rebar, cracked spans, corroded material, missing bolts, broken guardrails and advanced section loss.
On a scale of 0 to 9, the bridge’s superstructure was rated a 5, its deck and substructure each earned a 6, the channel was graded a 7 and the waterway adequacy and approach roadway alignment received 8s.
Maintenance is typically covered by the State Highway Fund, which receives 80% of the gas tax money collected in the state. It’s also funded by DMV fees and a small percentage of the highway-use tax. As of Friday, the Highway Fund totaled $2.8 billion.
The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge was constructed in 1969 and currently carries more than 60,000 vehicles daily. NCDOT predicts by 2045, that number could reach more than 80,000.
State and local officials have been discussing options on how to cover the cost of the bridge replacement for years.
WMPO and NCDOT will have to agree on a path forward in order to secure funds. WMPO passed a resolution in February to consider all possible scenarios. As a result, NCDOT is exploring three methods: state’s typical funding, a toll and alternative options, such as a public-private partnership.
In late 2020, an unsolicited proposal from United Bridge Partners presented the possibility of utilizing a toll to offset the expense. Since summer 2021, officials from New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties have been at odds on how to proceed.
Most are adamantly against a toll, supporting the wishes of constituents, while others remain open-minded, noting it might be the only path forward at this time.
Kimes told Port City Daily if funding is identified, it could speed up the timeline of the bridge replacement.
Once the traffic and revenue study is completed, the boards can move forward with design and permitting options, while the environmental study is in process.
“We are collecting the best available information and data to help the WMPO make an informed decision on what they feel is right for the region,” he wrote to PCD.
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