WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Explosive growth is going to be one of the biggest issues facing our area for the foreseeable future. County leaders estimate that the population of New Hanover County will surge from approximately 220,000 now, to 337,000 by 2040.
That doesn't even count the tens of thousands of tourists who drive to our beaches each year, or the residents from surrounding counties who travel to Wilmington for work, dining, shopping and entertainment. If you consider these numbers in terms of traffic, we will be squeezing a lot of extra people onto our already crowded roads.
"Traffic is the number one issue that we contend with," Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said of the problem.
Saffo said the relatively small size of our county, partially surrounded by water, contributes to our traffic issues. Census data shows New Hanover County is currently the third most congested county in the state based on population per square mile. Only Mecklenburg and Wake Counties are more densely populated.
While traffic has been a problem here for years, recent changes to the formula DOT uses to award money for road improvements has helped New Hanover County considerably.
The old formula factored in population and interstate lane miles. The new formula considers data like road congestion and public safety, judging a potential road improvement project on its merits to improve traffic.
Now, decisions about what gets built are less likely to be influenced by political pressure, because much of the discretionary spending that used to play a role in project selection has been eliminated.
"Right, wrong or indifferent, we're rewarded for the congestion that we're experiencing. So we have been very successful and are able to identify and secure funding for a number of projects throughout the region," Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization Executive Director Mike Kozlosky explained.
Under this new Strategic Transportation Investment Formula, $600 million in state money has been set aside for upgrades to roadways in the Wilmington Metro area, primarily at some of our busiest intersections. To put the significance of that amount in perspective, the Charlotte Metro area got roughly the same amount of state funding, even though the population there is well over two million.
Five intersections here have been identified as congested enough to qualify for state-funded improvements through STIP, or the State Transportation Improvement Program. They are College & Oleander, Eastwood & Military Cutoff, MLK Parkway & South College, and MLK & South Kerr.
"We're not going to do it overnight, it's going to probably take us over 10 years, over a decade to get all those improvements in place, because we're going to have to go through a public process, we're going to take some people's property, some businesses are going to be relocated," Saffo explained. "Help is on the way."
Saffo says the majority of these intersection improvements will be overpasses, while others will be ground level improvements. While the state money is expected to cover the road construction, Saffo says the city may spend some local money to dress up the intersections above and beyond the standard state road design, similar to the decorative improvements the city of Mt. Pleasant, SC has done along Highway 17.
We sat down with MPO Director Mike Kozlosky for an overview of what is being planned, and when you can expect to see construction begin. In addition to the STIP projects, there are locally funded upgrades (like transportation bond improvements) that will add to the construction.
"Over the next decade, it's going to be difficult to drive around Wilmington without seeing orange construction cones," Kozlosky said of the scope of the upgrades in store.
- Wilmington Bypass/I-140 – under construction now, with a projected completion date of November 2017. Will connect Highway 17 in Northern New Hanover County to Highway 17 in Brunswick County, and connect to 74-76 near Navassa. This will divert drivers passing through Wilmington off of city roadways.
- Kerr Avenue Widening Project – under construction now, with a projected completion date in 2018. Crews are widening Kerr Avenue from Martin Luther King Parkway to Patrick Avenue, just south of Randall Parkway. That project will include upgrading the intersection at Kerr and Market. Left turns from Kerr onto Market will be eliminated to improve traffic flow. Drivers traveling on Kerr toward town needing to turn left on Market will be diverted onto another roadway now under construction. Drivers traveling on Kerr toward Martin Luther King Parkway will be diverted to Cinema Drive. New traffic lights will be installed along Market Street to accommodate those drivers, and the signals will be coordinated so this eases congestion instead of adding to it.
- Military Cutoff Extension – Construction to begin October 2017. Extend Military Cutoff Road from Market Street to the Wilmington Bypass. As part of the construction, crews will construct an overpass to take Military Cutoff Road over Market Street.
- Martin Luther King Parkway & Kerr Avenue Intersection Upgrade - construction to begin 2020. Design of the intersection upgrade is complete and this will become an overpass so traffic no longer needs to stop at light at that intersection.
- Eastwood Road & Military Cutoff Intersection Upgrade – construction to begin 2021. Design for this intersection upgrade still unknown. It could be an at-grade improvement or an overpass.
- Martin Luther King & South College Road Intersection Upgrade – construction slated for 2022. Traffic planners say an overpass for this intersection is likely but not definite.
- Carolina Beach Road & College Road Intersection Upgrade – construction projected to begin 2022. The design for this new intersection at Monkey Junction is still being determined, but traffic planners say a “flyover” overpass design is a strong contender. A flyover is a high-level overpass built above another road, that then wraps around, allowing drivers that traveled over to then merge with traffic on the lower road, and eliminating the need to stop at a traffic light.
- College & Oleander Intersection Upgrade – planning phase with construction slated to begin in 2025. Because there is so much development around Wilmington’s busiest intersection, upgrading this intersection will be more involved than most. It is anticipated that some businesses will have to be relocated. An overpass of some kind is likely for this intersection upgrade, but because of space constraints, it may be a modified version of a traditional overpass.
- Cape Fear Crossing – planning phase. The Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization and a merger team of various state and federal agencies are currently considering twelve options for a third bridge across the Cape Fear River. Leaders currently favor a southern crossing, which would put an additional bridge further south than the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and the Isabel Holmes Bridge, and hopefully reduce traffic congestion in the northern end of the county. Traffic planners expect to select a final route for the new bridge by 2018.
The STIP plan will be updated in August. Projects already on the calendar within the next 5 years are set, already in the design or construction phase.
Projects that are further out on the calendar are subject to change. However, because of a budget surplus of over $1 billion, the DOT may potentially be able to fast track some of those projects.