SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Leaders weighed in Wednesday about a major thoroughfare bringing travelers into Wilmington: A toll will be considered as an option when it comes to trying to fund the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
The 13-member WMPO board — consisting of government officials from New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties — voted 8-5 Wednesday for the North Carolina Department of Transportation to consider a toll bridge to help boost its ranking on the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program. The STIP is a data-driven formula that rates projects NCDOT will bankroll in a 10-year period; NCDOT updates it every two years.
Given an extension from NCDOT, Wednesday’s vote was the last chance to submit a toll option for consideration ahead of the Feb. 1 deadline.
Beach town leaders from Wrightsville, Carolina and Kure were in favor of submitting a toll option. Yet, leaders from inland towns, such as Wilmington, Leland and Navassa, were against it.
The full vote breakdown included the following people in favor of submitting a toll option:
- Bill Rivenbark, New Hanover County
- Mike Forte, Brunswick County
- Wendy Fletcher-Hardee, Pender County
- Hank Miller, Wrightsville Beach
- Lynn Barbee, Carolina Beach
- John Ellen, Kure Beach
- Mike Allen, Belville
- Landon Zimmer, NCDOT
Against submitting a toll option were:
- Jonathan Barfield, New Hanover County
- Bill Saffo, Wilmington
- Luke Waddell, Wilmington
- Brenda Bozeman, Leland
- Eulis Willis, Navassa
Over the past few weeks, multiple municipalities and governments — City of Wilmington, Town of Navassa, Town of Leland, New Hanover County — signed resolutions against the toll.
Wednesday’s vote by the WMPO did not mean a toll would officially be implemented, only that local leaders were willing to see how it would score to receive state funding.
The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge — considered functionally obsolete, meaning it’s becoming harder to find parts and more expensive to repair — has not scored high enough previously on its own. Built in 1969, NCDOT continues to invest in its upfit and repairs, including the current multi-million preservation project underway, to extend its life.
The preservation project that started this week includes installing a new riding deck, which could last 20 or so years, but only if the NCDOT had “endless” maintenance dollars, division 3 engineer Chad Kimes said in October. In the last six years, NCDOT has spent $50 million on Cape Fear Memorial Bridge repairs.
Costs to build anew is estimated to be roughly $430 million for a 135-foot fixed bridge, with six lanes. Since it’s increasing from four lanes to six and proposed to be taller than its current 65 feet, NCDOT considers this option a new build rather than a replacement, which contributes to it being a low priority on the state agency’s scorecard.
A non-tolled option has already been submitted for STIP consideration. It will be scored separately from the toll option, but NCDOT has been adamant the non-tolled proposal won’t come close to receiving funding.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Zimmer — NCDOT representative on the WMPO board — said data shows the bridge isn’t in the top 400 of projects submitted to NCDOT. He added a tolled option would skyrocket it to the top spot.
“No one’s coming to save us here; we’re gonna have to save ourselves,” Zimmer said.
The controversial funding option has come up more frequently in discussions about the bridge replacement in the last three years. WMPO board voted against its implementation in 2021 when it turned down an unsolicited proposal from private company United Bridge Partners. It could have paid to replace the bridge and install a toll for 50 years to cover the cost.
In February 2022, WMPO revisited alternative funding options. It voted on a resolution to allow NCDOT to explore the traditional method through the STIP, alternative delivery (such as unsolicited proposals, as received by United Bridge Partners) and a toll.
Leaders against the toll say it should not be on the backs of residents to pay for NCDOT’s structure. They maintain residents have already paid for the bridge through taxes and DMV fees, though those have been declining in recent years; implementing a toll would be a hardship on the working class who use the bridge each day; and the bridge, vital to the Port of Wilmington, provides economic benefit to the whole state, not just locals.
“We’re being divided over someone else’s stuff,” New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield said on Wednesday. “New Hanover County won’t receive a dime of that toll. Neither will Brunswick County.”
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo chose to target the STIP process, going toe-to-toe with Kimes. Saffo asked why the Hampstead Bypass, a $500 million project, scored higher than the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. Kimes said it was a major route, while the bridge was one of three routes into the city.
Saffo questioned the Alligator River project in Tyrell County as well, which was a replacement bridge project, to which Kimes replied it obtained federal money and had a 85-mile detour.
Saffo also brought up qn interchange between N.C. 87 and N.C. 11 in Columbus County; Kimes said any $10 million project that would decrease congestion would score higher, while projects over $100 million would always struggle.
Eventually, he was interrupted by WMPO Chairman Miller, who instructed him to focus on the matter at hand. Boos erupted by some of the roughly 80 people in the audience.
At the meeting, a few residents criticized the STIP process, championed by Rep. Frank Iler (R-Brunswick), which began in 2013. The North Carolina’s Strategic Transportation Investments Law replaced the former politician-influenced scoring process to become data-driven. It states the goal for funding is to be used “efficiently and effectively to enhance infrastructure while supporting economic growth, job creation and a higher quality of life.”
Some have inferred the bridge’s low score, in consideration of the workers that use it and its indispensable value to the Port of Wilmington, is proof the system is broken.
“STIP is a crutch used to absolve them,” Shelley Allen, the chair of the Brunswick County Democratic Party, told leaders, referring to the NCDOT’s financial responsibility to replace the bridge. A 30-minute public hearing opened the meeting, with speakers allowed three minutes to state their opinions.
Representative Iler said at a WMPO meeting in November the formula needed to be altered to update the weight given to criteria used. Factors include ranking congestion, safety, freight, multimodal options, accessibility, benefit and cost.
“This bridge is critical to economic impact,” Barfield said at Wednesday’s meeting.
More than 50,000 vehicles commute across the bridge daily, which is expected to increase upward of 100,000 in the next 20 years. According to the U.S. Census 9,024 jobs in New Hanover County are occupied by Brunswick County residents — the largest number of people entering on a daily basis into New Hanover. Roughly 3,600 jobs in Brunswick are filled by New Hanover County residents.
Leaders have pointed out area residents — nurses, teachers, law enforcement, for example — work on limited salaries averaging $40,000 a year. A $1 or $2 toll will add up quickly to their daily expenses.
Barfield asked if the WMPO were to approve the toll option, and it scored high enough for funding, but then the WMPO decided against implementing a toll, would NCDOT still fund the bridge?
In response, Kimes said NCDOT would make it a priority.
“It is the intent of [doing] everything I can do not to go into an actual toll,” Kimes said. “But it’s critical to go after these grants to continue having that conversation about a potential toll.”
NCDOT representatives’ position has been that demonstrating an open-mindedness to a toll would attract more funding opportunities, specifically federal grants. It has already applied to one that is awaiting decision. The grants often require a match from state or local governments. Essentially, if federal agencies see the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is backed by the NCDOT — which the department says will only happen with a toll — it will be more competitive.
In NCDOT’s vision, the department could garner enough grant money to significantly lower the cost of the project, and thus, the toll amount.
Therein lies the predicament. Local leaders can choose not to pursue a toll, which will all but make it impossible to fund the current proposal, so residents won’t be strapped to another tax. The other option is more akin to a gamble: Open the door for a toll while aiming to garner enough money not to need one.
Councilmember Waddell, a critic against a toll option, said he had faith in everyone in the room to pursue grant opportunities, but there was no guarantee they would get favorable funding.
“We’d be left with a binary vote at that point,” Waddell said. “To accept the toll to get a bridge or get nothing. This scenario should be unacceptable.”
He then proposed adding amendments to the resolution before the WMPO to make it clear it was the state’s responsibility to fund the bridge, regardless of federal money He compelled NCDOT to use other funds, like the state highway fund, to accomplish that goal. NCDOT uses the state highway trust fund for new projects, which is what it classifies the bridge as, while the state highway fund is utilized for maintenance projects.
Waddell’s additions were not formally taken up and Zimmer said they could jeopardize the NCDOT’s acceptance of the project.
Around 15 people spoke at the meeting, including business leaders and everyday citizens; more people spoke against the toll option than for.
Lisa Leath, chief people officer of Vantaca — which employs 15,000 in the region — was clear: “Explore all options to get the funding.”
The sentiment was shared by Wilmington Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Natalie English.
“Other regions in the country are doing the same thing,” she stated.
“I’m not a Chamber of Commerce plant,” resident Mike Rush said and added that a toll is a “callous disregard for the working men and women.”
Executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation Travis Gilbert suggested going a different direction altogether. Rather than invest in a $430 million bridge that would be fixed at 135 feet, he suggested altering it and keeping it a 65-foot bridge. A lower bridge would jeopardize traffic to the port. Gilbert pointed out only one company has needed the bridge raised, Kinder Morgan, who recently sold their riverfront property.
“Let’s weigh how much money they’re spending on our community against an option that is $150 million more expensive and see which option is more practical for the economy of our local region,” Gilbert said.
[Editor’s Note: Mike Rush’s comment has been corrected from “countless disregard” to “callous disregard.” PCD regrets the error.]
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