Stormwater repairs, Rail Realignment take focus at infrastructure-heavy Wilmington council meeting

Wilmington Infrastructure Week

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Infrastructure issues dominated the agenda for Wilmington City Council’s first meeting of August.

From storm drains to railroad traffic, council members heard updates on several mult-million dollar projects in the works.

Stormwater

Council members unanimously approved the appropriation of $4,564,800 from the city’s capital improvement funds for repairs to more than 100 pieces of stormwater infrastructure at 70 locations around the city.

Those repairs are needed thanks to damage from Hurricane Florence, which was only exacerbated by the more than 102 inches of rain Wilmington received in 2018.

“We have a lot of infrastructure that was damaged because of that,” Mayor Bill Saffo said.

While damaged stormwater infrastructure may not seem as urgent as debris removal or repairs to public buildings, failed drains and pipes can cause both headaches and emergencies for citizens.

WECT Investigated Wilmington’s stormwater infrastructure in April, and found that months after the storm, city staff were still finding problem areas.

All but $348,610 of the money appropriated Tuesday night is eligible for FEMA reimbursement — though that process can take months or even years.

Ineligible projects include damage where problems were already identified prior to Florence, or not identified until after the Jan. 11 FEMA deadline.

One of the projects, the culvert repairs on River Road, city staff said, is already on track to get started in the next few weeks. Others are either already in progress, or are expected to go out to bid in August and September.

Rail Realignment

The project’s goal is to move freight traffic to the port out of the city center of Wilmington, effectively eliminating 31 railroad crossings, and freeing up those tracks for public transit or park space.

At the meeting, the council approved a resolution to ask the North Carolina Department of Transportation for $500,000 to match the city’s $500,000 contribution requirement for the FRA grant.

Former City Council Member Laura Padgett said NCDOT has expressed willingness to contribute if it can do it over the next two fiscal years.

She said the project finally has some “go juice,” and these tangible steps, along with the hiring of a new project manager, mean the improvements are much closer on the horizon.

Mayor Saffo said he wanted to thank Padgett for her work on the project.

“This is a big project for our community,” he said, "and something that can transform Wilmington by moving the rail line outside of Wilmington, those rail corridors can be redeveloped in so many different ways, and possibly light rail or other things, but this is a great day for our community and great work that went into this.”

Waterfront Development

Described as a somewhat-contentious issue, council also approved changes to the city’s code to modify conservation resource standards for waterfront structures.

Others have said the city isn’t enforcing the code evenly.

The council approved changes that would extend the time period non-conforming structures that existed before the code was implemented to be rebuilt the same way.

Council voted 6-1, with Council Member Charlie Rivenbark voting against the measure.

During the discussion, Rivenbark pushed city staff on the proposal, saying he had issues with the fairness of allowing developers latitude now, when others would have been denied over the years.

Mayor Saffo said while he and others understand developers may feel the city’s requirements are too strict, he believes the city is right to go above and beyond the state regulations in order to protect the area’s aquatic resources.

A focus on Infrastructure

While it may not be the most exciting topic, Mayor Saffo said investing in infrastructure today will help the city accommodate the continued rapid growth the area is expected to see.

“It’s a big topic of conversation and if you don’t get in front of it, it will end up costing you a lot more money in the end because of you’re putting off a lot of those repairs and improvements they should be making now," he said.

"Sometimes it’s better to go ahead and take what I say, ‘the short-term pain for long-term gain.’ But we’re going to have to be making significant investments in infrastructure going forward for many many years, not just the next couple of years, but for many many years just because the area has grown.”

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