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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Wilmington council against tolled bridge replacement, WMPO members mixed ahead of vote

Cape Fear Memorial Bridge (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WILMINGTON — Pressure is mounting on whether to consider a toll option for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge as the deadline to submit a toll-funded replacement for state consideration approaches.

READ MORE: New traffic pattern installed for Isabel Holmes in preparation for CF Memorial Bridge detour

The Wilmington City Council was unanimous in its Tuesday night vote on a surprise resolution brought forth opposing a toll. Though the item wasn’t on the agenda, council member Luke Waddell, an adamant opponent to tolling the bridge, wanted council to take a stance at the meeting.

In November, Landon Zimmer, NCDOT representative on the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, suggested state leaders would take local officials more seriously on the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge if a toll was on the table.

The city’s resolution states tolling a replacement bridge would “impose a disproportionate financial burden on Wilmington and southeastern North Carolina relative to any other area of the state.” 

As well, Waddell proposed it would pose a negative impact on commerce using the bridge and have a “disproportionately acute” impact on traditionally disadvantaged persons, according to the resolution.

Built in 1969, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge has been in need of replacement for years according to local officials. It failed to score high enough in previous rounds of prioritization for the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, a data-driven formula that determines what the North Carolina Department of Transportation will fund. 

NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland reached out to Port City Daily post-publication and said the bridge is not at the end of its life.

“It’s not been in need of replacement,” Haviland said. “It’s still not in need of a replacement and that’s part of the reason it’s being scored the way that it is. Because especially after the preservation project, it’s going to be in good standing.”

However, as NCDOT has stated before, the upkeep costs are increasing as materials for the bridge become harder to find and inflation affects labor and material prices. So though a replacement is not needed, per NCDOT, a new fixed bridge as proposed in the STIP would be cheaper to maintain.

The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which manages funding for the Cape Fear region’s transportation projects, adopted a resolution in February 2022 to consider all possible alternatives to fund the bridge project. That would include a toll, which would reduce the project’s overall cost for the state, making it score higher in NCDOT’s evaluation process. 

The cost estimate for the most popular replacement option — a 135-foot fixed span bridge with six lanes and a multi-use path — is $400 million. The STIP would need to fund its entirety. If a toll was considered and could pay for $100 million over the course of its lifetime, then the STIP only needs to fund $300 million, making it a more desirable project for the NCDOT.   

Consent is needed from the local governing body — the WMPO — to toll the “replacement” bridge, though a North Carolina municipality has never chosen to toll an existing facility.

Some of the region’s leaders are adamant a toll should not be on the table, and according to council member Charlie Rivenbark it wasn’t until the last few years.

“The word ‘toll’ never ever entered the conversation, and we were talking anywhere from three-quarters of a billion dollars to a billion dollars to construct that bridge,” Rivenbark said at the Tuesday meeting. “And as I just said, we never discussed tolls, we wouldn’t have gotten out of committee, or out of the WMPO if it had come up. And now all of a sudden we’re talking about something that’s a less expensive alternative, and tolls seem to be carrying the day with the DOT.” 

Rivenbark demanded the citizens pay a multitude of taxes already — gas and state income — and adding a toll would be a double tax. Waddell agreed in an op-ed he wrote for Wilmington Business Journal, published last week

Half of NCDOT’s highway funds are gathered through the gas tax, but also the state’s highway use tax, DMV fees and the general fund. An argument of the toll opposition is that residents have already paid for the bridge through those means. Rivenbark agreed. 

“We’re being asked to pay a toll for something that we should have already paid for,” Rivenbark said at the Tuesday council meeting. 

He added it’s NCDOT’s responsibility to cover the costs of its aging road and Mayor Bill Saffo agreed.

“The state needs to be aware of the fact that they have a responsibility, and they should never skirt their responsibility as a state,” Saffo, also a WMPO member, said on Tuesday. “And to ask the local folks to make a decision about tolling a bridge, which is a state asset, is beyond our comprehension.” 

Saffo placed further impetus on the state by emphasizing the bridge’s importance to the Port of Wilmington, which benefits the economy of the entire state.

“It shouldn’t be just the people in Brunswick County, and the people in New Hanover County that pay for a piece of infrastructure that has been used for half a century, paid for by all of us,” Saffo said. “And now they’re asking us to toll it, and for only us to be tolled. It’s just wrong on every single level.”

During Waddell’s presentation while pitching the resolution, he pointed out another bridge over Alligator River in Tyrell County was replaced using NCDOT’s State Highway Fund, a different pot of money than the capital funds that would be used to cover the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement.

Per the NCDOT, State Highway Fund — different from the State Highway Trust Fund — can cover “general maintenance, roadside environmental activities, resurfacing highways, replacing bridges, paving unpaved secondary roads, and state aid to municipalities” and funds are distributed across North Carolina based on need. 

According to NCDOT spokesperson Aaron Moody, bridge replacement projects through the Highway Fund are for bridges at the end of their service life, which the Cape Fear Memorial is not per NCDOT. It is also technically a new bridge, since the replacement structure will go up aside the current bridge and expand from four lanes to six. For both those reasons, the project is defined as a capital project and must go through the STIP process.

Saffo and Waddell, along with 10 other Cape Fear leaders, will make the decision on whether to submit a tolled version of the bridge replacement at the WMPO board meeting on Jan. 31. To be clear, this vote is not to agree to a toll, only for a toll option to be scored by NCDOT.

The NCDOT has submitted the un-tolled version of the project to be scored and has extended the deadline to Feb. 1 for the WMPO to submit a tolled version. The two projects will both get scored, and if they are both rated high enough for NCDOT funding, the WMPO will have to choose which project should move forward. 

However, per the NCDOT and the history of the non-tolled project’s prioritization, it is unlikely to score high enough to receive funding this round.

On Wednesday, the WMPO technical coordinating committee advanced the resolution needed to submit a tolled version of the project; it did not include a recommendation for approval nor denial.

“This is a very divisive issue, the board is very divided on this,” WMPO Executive Director Mike Kozlosky said at the WMPO meeting. “It’s really a political decision and I would suggest that we just move this onto the board so that they can debate it.”

The resolution states the “toll option would be for scoring purposes only and would not commit the project to being programmed and delivered as a toll facility.” 

Port City Daily reached out to the WMPO board members on Wednesday to gauge their feelings on the resolution. New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield and Navassa Mayor Eulis Willis both said they would be voting against the resolution. 

“I worry about the impact on our community — people are probably going to have to take different routes to go places,” Willis said. 

Barfield homed in on the impact it would have on working class commuters, first responders, and those working in the tourism industry. Nearly 70,000 vehicles cross the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge daily, but it’s anticipated almost 82,000 vehicles will travel over the bridge daily by 2045.

According to the U.S. Census, 9,024 jobs in New Hanover County are occupied by Brunswick County residents — the largest number of commuters into New Hanover. Roughly 3,600 jobs in Brunswick are filled by New Hanover residents.

“It would be a regressive fee to those who could least afford it,” Barfield said. 

Wrightsville Beach Mayor Pro Tem and WMPO chairman Hank Miller, who has served on the WMPO for 10 years, had a different view. 

He is in favor of the resolution “to stay in the game” but was clear this month’s vote would be to  explore all options as the WMPO had voted before to do.

Miller explained if the toll version was passed, it would give the WMPO more time to continue to work toward grant funding to offset the overall cost of the project. If the project were to garner federal grants, it could reduce the toll. An NCDOT-funded project, which may only happen through a toll, could look better to grant agencies than an unfunded, more expensive project. 

“There are all kinds of things that can happen between today and paying for it,” Miller said. “In reality, if we say no [to the toll] now, they’re going to stop, right? Because they’re convinced there’s no other options. So in reality, if we don’t put in the toll road, and they look at it, from a scoring standpoint, it doesn’t score during the regular way, they’re gonna stop looking.”

[Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect further clarification from NCDOT on the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge’s current condition in regards to needing a replacement.]


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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