By BEN LEDBETTER
The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is 51 years old and serves as a major connection between New Hanover and Brunswick counties.
However, it requires costly routine maintenance and getting it funded through the North Carolina Department of Transportation is doubtful.
According to the NCDOT, annual maintenance for the bridge costs $550,000. Traffic volume is also projected to increase to 81,900 vehicles per day by 2045.
While there was an unsolicited proposal to fund a replacement bridge with tolls, the Wilmington Urban Area Planning Organization voted 7-5 to reject that proposal at its Wednesday, July 28 meeting. The Wilmington MPO serves New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties.
While the traditional funding for the bridge would have been through the prioritization process through the State Transportation Improvement Program, NCDOT Div. 3 Engineer Chad Kimes stated in a presentation that getting a large non-tolled project included in the next 10-year cycle is unlikely.
Kimes stated the potential benefits of a public-private partnership are the project being fully funded from the beginning, an advanced replacement schedule and maintenance being the developer’s responsibility.
One disadvantage of moving forward is unknown toll rates during the planning stages and those would not be known until bids are received.
"I am pleased with the outcome of today's vote in which the WMPO board rejected the proposal to replace the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge with a toll bridge," Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said in a statement. "I look forward to working with our state and regional partners to find a responsible solution to replacing this iconic bridge that does not involve double taxing Wilmington residents."
Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman, who is also a Wilmington MPO board member, was one of the seven that voted against the proposal. She said in a statement that funding the bridge replacement with tolls would hurt the Brunswick County municipality's residents.
“Leland is home to many working families and seniors on fixed incomes who are all taxpayers of the State of North Carolina. Just like anyone else in this state, we have a right to free and accessible transportation routes," Bozeman said in a statement. " It’s also premature for NCDOT to push such a plan when a potential infusion of federal money for critical infrastructure is in the works. It’s strange to me that this plan is being pushed with such an aggressive timeline with no previous opportunity for public comment, particularly considering it has been discussed for several months in closed sessions. I encourage the NCDOT to take a hard look at this process and encourage the citizens of Leland and the entire region to make their voices heard and demand transparency moving forward."
According to the NCDOT, it received the proposal in late 2020 and any toll projects in the state must be approved by the local planning organization. The department of transportation reviewed it before forwarding it to the Wilmington MPO. The plans are considered confidential under state law. Should the Wilmington MPO want to move forward, it would have started a competitive bidding process.
Brunswick and New Hanover counties along with other area municipal governments have held meetings on the issue.
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