Thursday, June 13, 2024

NY firm to analyze pros and cons of combining rail realignment and bridge replacement

The city has hired a NY contractor to analyze the engineering of a new bridge crossing that would combine railroad tracks and highway over the Cape Fear River. (Port City Daily photo/file)

WILMINGTON — The city entered into a contract with an infrastructure engineering firm to weigh the options of combining two major projects into one endeavor: the city’s rail realignment and replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.

The city is paying Hardesty and Hanover, based out of New York City, $200,000 to complete a comprehensive study about the feasibility of the project. City council unanimously signed off on the contract Nov. 15 and expects draft results within six months.

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

Three proposals were submitted, following a request sent out to engineering firms in July. Economic development director Aubrey Parsley told council Hardesty and Hanover was unanimously selected as the most qualified. The selection committee comprised employees from the city, Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and North Carolina Department of Transportation.

“Few firms have the technical expertise to study and analyze a project like this,” Parsley said in November. “There are few shared bridges out there, at this scale, which combine highway and rail.”

Hardesty and Hanover has three combination bridges in its portfolio, all with vertical lift span components — a factor relevant to Wilmington’s undertaking. The firm has performed studies, alternative analyses, final designs, and rehab for more than 130 movable bridges over the last decade.

The 135-year-old company plans to use NCDOT’s express design summary from 2020 as a starting point.

NCDOT had pursued a new bridge crossing for years before suspending plans indefinitely in 2019 and turning its efforts toward replacing the Cape Fear Memorial. The following result was a year-long feasibility study that in 2020 produced four options, one being a shared-use bridge, combining highway and rail, as well as a multi-use path.

The rail and highway components would have a shared foundation but independent structures and be around 200-feet long with a 65-foot vertical clearance.

There is no funding in place for the bridge replacement, a contentious topic for local officials over the last few years. The option of a toll has been considered as a way to pay for the cost of construction, as NCDOT’s Strategic Transportation Improvement Plan did not rank the project high enough to be considered for funding.

The city has secured $2.5 million toward the cost needed to develop 30% of engineering plans for the rail realignment, which would reroute CSX rail lines over the Cape Fear River into Brunswick County. The new route would also provide more direct access to the Port of Wilmington.

“Both projects are still in the very early stages,” Parsley told council.

However, local officials want to examine more in-depth what it would take to pursue a joint project, including aesthetics, function and cost, compared to tackling each independently.

Parley outlined the high-level steps Hardesty and Hanover will take to complete its report, first with gathering information that exists and understanding what still needs to be studied. Additional findings may include soil tests in the river and other environmental factors.

Next, the firm would establish a “practical shared-use concept,” meaning if the structure be parallel, stacked, or include a fixed bridge component. It would then generate a conceptual design and weigh the monetary and non-monetary trade-offs, such as incorporating other transportation projects.

Parsley and Hardesty and Hanover representative Roger Rochelle also presented its plan of action to the WMPO board Wednesday. Rochelle told members an “A-plus team” was assigned to the study.

He also explained the company will analyze how the infrastructure could impact the surrounding areas and noted there’s a possibility of incorporating the South Front Street widening project as well.

The N.C State Ports Authority has been advocating for the South Front Street widening to progress more quickly to assist with truck travel to and from the Port of Wilmington. The expansion project would broaden South Front from two to four lanes but is currently unfunded by NCDOT’s STIP. The WMPO has considered “swapping it” in place of a proposed four-lane road project at Market Street.

Rochelle said the comprehensive analysis for reviewing a rail and highway bridge is a “rapid study” with the hopes to present draft results to WMPO and city council in July or August 2023.

Stakeholder feedback will be included before a final report is released next year.

NCDOT completed an express design study in 2020 as a preliminary concept into what combining the two projects could look like. (Courtesy/City of Wilmington)

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