SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge remains a top priority for region leaders as moves are made inching the project closer to reality.
Recently, the North Carolina Department of Transportation settled an acquisition for $18.1 million for three parcels on Surry Street. It doled out the multi-millions to Riverman LLC, listed to Michael McCarley and Kevin Walker, which purchased the property for $1.15 million in 2012.
The state agency identified the location just south of the current bridge as the only feasible spot to construct a new one, which is needed as the old 50-year bridge approaches its end-of-life span. When the Wilmington Planning Commission approved a rezoning request in November, submitted by Cape Fear Development Partners, for 7.4 acres of land at 610, 712, 732 Surry St., NCDOT stepped in to block potential future development.
Cape Fear Development hoped to build Proximity at Dram Tree, with more than 200 apartments and a luxury restaurant in a location that would have coincided with a future crossing of the Cape Fear River.
“If the bridge project were to happen 10 years from now and the development is there, at that point, it may cause the project to not have enough funding to move forward,” NCDOT division 3 engineer Chad Kimes told Port City Daily in January.
The NCDOT’s Advance Acquisition Committee approved a request in December for a protective acquisition of the parcels, noting the development would create a hardship for the state transportation agency’s future project.
The Board of Transportation, overseeing NCDOT action, then authorized the settlement — negotiated and agreed to by both parties — at its recent May 4 meeting. The actual acquisition should take place soon, NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland confirmed.
Waterline Brewing owner Rob Robinson has had a front-row seat to pressures of replacing the bridge. He purchased Waterline’s building at 721 Surry St. in 2014 and said since it opened, the proposed new bridge location has shifted multiple times.
Over the last two-plus decades, NCDOT has studied dozens of routes for potential connections, including Cape Fear Crossing. It was a decades-long attempt at constructing a new bridge from Wilmington and Brunswick County, though plans halted in 2019.
This recent purchase of properties, across the street from his brewery, solidifies in Robinson’s opinion the favorable location for the bridge replacement.
Robinson said he has seen maps of various iterations at NCDOT community and public meetings. While Waterline’s business is “clearly in the land they’re going to need if and when they build the bridge,” he has not yet been contacted by NCDOT directly about any acquisition.
The brewery owner is not worried yet about something still years down the road.
“Bottom line is: It’s not even a funded project yet,” he said. “In the meantime, we’re going to continue to be making beer.”
Chance Lambeth, district director for U.S. Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC), sent an email to Kara Spencer, City of Wilmington’s director of legislative and intergovernmental affairs, on April 20 confirming the land sale and releasing a new price on constructing a new bridge.
Last year, estimates were between $300 and $800 million, a 50% to 75% increase from the feasibility study of four potential options released by NCDOT in 2020.
“The latest number for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement is $400 million,” Lambeth wrote. “DOT is optimistic that state and federal grants will bring this within reach.”
A spokesperson from Rouzer’s office confirmed the estimate came directly from NCDOT. She also said Lambeth was likely referencing option two — a 135-foot fixed span bridge. That choice would also include reconstruction of the U.S. 17/U.S. 74/U.S. 421 interchange.
The other three options make up 65-foot clearances, ranging in fixed or moveable spans; the most expensive includes a rail element.
“This project looks a lot more sound than it did just 3 years ago,” Lambeth wrote.
The bridge hasn’t scored high enough in NCDOT’s data-driven formula in the past, meaning neither a money source nor schedule has been assigned to the project. The main reason is due to its high cost. A grant could help offset the cost and boost the project’s score in NCDOT’s 10-year planning process.
The 2024-2033 State Transportation Improvement Program is already underway, with adoption by the Board of Transportation scheduled for June.
A workgroup is developing criteria for prioritization 7.0, the two-year window where projects within the STIP are re-evaluated for funding and scheduling. Project submissions will open July to September.
For the process, all regional planning organizations have the opportunity to carry over two projects that were submitted in the prior prioritization round.
The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, covering 494 square miles of the tri-county region, chose in March the connection between U.S. 17 and N.C. 133 in Brunswick County and the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
According to internal emails, Spencer has sought the insight of UNCW’s regional economist Mouhcine Guettabi to study the effects the bridge has on the regional economy. She’s also been working with Mayor Bill Saffo and Rouzer on funding options for the bridge that don’t include a toll.
An unsolicited proposal from United Bridge Partners in late 2020 presented the possibility of using a toll to offset the expense. Since then, officials from New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties had been at odds on how to proceed.
Most have spoken adamantly against a toll, supporting the wishes of constituents, while others remain open-minded, noting it may be the only way. The WMPO rejected the toll proposal July 29, 2021, but in February 2022, the board adopted a resolution to look at “all possible funding options” for the bridge replacement.
NCDOT is currently working on a traffic and revenue study to evaluate the feasibility of a potential toll and how traffic would be diverted if enacted. Many of the WMPO board members, who would have to cast votes to move forward with a toll, have also vocally opposed the move.
Internal emails show the WMPO was contacted by the NCDOT consultant working on the study, requesting certificate of occupancies from New Hanover and Brunswick counties from 2015 to 2022.
WMPO deputy director Abby Lorenzo said the data is one source that could inform household and population estimates. The information is necessary for WMPO’s planning purposes and NCDOT’s traffic volume forecasting.
Once the traffic and revenue study is completed, the boards can move forward with design and permitting options; then an environmental study gets underway. The collective results would help move the project closer to shovel-ready for future grants.
Simultaneously, the city has contracted Hardesty and Hanover, a New York based infrastructure engineering firm, to weigh options of combining the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge with the rail realignment project. The city intends to reorient current rail tracks over the Cape Fear River.
The city paid $200,000 to the company in December to complete a comprehensive study on building a shared-use bridge, for highway and rail. Local officials want to examine more in depth the aesthetics, function and cost associated with it.
According to internal emails, Hardesty and Hanover have completed two of its four tasks, with the third to be done later this month.
Task three “gets into the work of establishing the bridge superstructure and substructure estimated sizes, moveable span concepts that will inform task 4, the comparative estimates of the combined bridge alternative with two separate structure for rail and roadway,” Rodger Rochelle wrote to WMPO director and deputy director Abby Lorenzo and Mike Kozlosky.
He also said the study could be used to inform the National Environmental Policy Act process, which ultimately determines the bridge type and clearance required. NEPA is used to ensure a project will have no significant impacts to the environment.
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