WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The North Carolina Department of Transportation announced Tuesday that it will not continue planning and design work on the Cape Fear Crossing project at this time.
The controversial project would include a 9.5 mile road and bridge over the river that would improve traffic and freight movement to and from the Port of Wilmington. The bridge would cost nearly a billion dollars and impact neighborhoods on both sides of the river.
“The decision to halt efforts on this project comes after the draft State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) was released this month," NCDOT said in a release Tuesday. "In the STIP, the project did not score well enough to receive construction funding.”
Those scores determine the state’s priorities for funding projects, and with the Cape Fear Crossing not being competitive, NCDOT determined it should shut down work on the effort.
Batleman and others said they were surprised at NCDOT’s announcement, because they were under the impression the project was moving along.
NCDOT was considering six different corridors that would have connected U.S. 17 and I-140 in Brunswick Co. to U.S. 421 near the Port of Wilmington.
As recent as Aug. 1, NCDOT was updating stakeholders on the status of the project.
It had planned to pick a preferred corridor in June of this year but that deadline was pushed back to the end of the year due to the response received during public hearings. About 650 people attended a public input meeting in April at North Brunswick High School.
Batleman hopes they can now pursue a new plan that would potentially move the crossing farther south.
“It’s a setback, in the sense that we were looking forward to growing with this additional crossing. But, we can’t look at it… We have to look at it in a more positive way, and that is now we can focus on exactly what is the best solution,” Batleman said.
The Cape Fear Crossing was one of more than 100 Cape Fear area projects listed on the DOT’s 10-year plan list released last week. Federal funds were expected to pay for 80 percent of the project with the other 20 percent coming from the state.
Transportation officials say that the project could be reconsidered in the future if it is submitted by the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“It would then be scored again by local transportation officials and NCDOT and compete with other projects for funding,” Tuesday’s press release states. “The department will be releasing the next draft STIP in February 2022.”
Even if the project is resubmitted by then, it would likely be 2032 or later before work could begin.
While NCDOT listed funding limitations and other priorities as the reason for shelving the project, documents obtained by WECT show the agency was aware of the pushback from the Brunswick County community.
WECT reached out to several community members who had expressed major concerns over the last several months to get their take on the announcement.
“Bridges are supposed to join opposite sides into unity. This whole process initially had torn apart neighbors, neighborhoods and communities,” said Brunswick County resident Bonnie Carr after hearing the decision. “Many today are jubilant that their home has been saved. Personally, while I hope this brings an end to my home being threatened, (and I am beyond grateful for this), I feel sad that this project is shelved.”
In a report released in June, the results of the public comment period were tabulated, with 3,085 comments coming in between December 2018 and the end of May.
Of those, 984 mentioned residential impacts, 950 suggested an alternative route, and 822 mentioned the Brunswick Forest or Mallory Creek neighborhoods.
Only 95 public comments mentioned the cost of the project.
Cape Fear Crossing Citizen Coalition leader Joanne Donaghue said she and others in the group want to emphasize that the project isn’t dead in the water — only postponed indefinitely.
She said they want to make sure if it does come back, that the interests of the entire community remain the focus of officials designing it.
Batleman said essentially starting over, which is what she understands this to be, will give them that chance.
“With all of the controversy over the corridors and the areas that were going to be destroyed, the areas that were going to be changed forever, this breathes new life into that process," she said. "We can now move forward and be more cognizant of how we are going to avoid such huge impacts.”
Brunswick County Commissioner Frank Williams said despite the NCDOT’s decision, the crossing will be needed at some point.
“I view this decision with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I am grateful that NCDOT heard and heeded the feedback and concerns articulated by citizens in northern Brunswick County. At the same time, this project offered an opportunity to actually get ahead of the curve and meet a future transportation need in the fastest-growing part of the fastest-growing county in North Carolina. At some point in the future, an additional crossing will be needed,” Williams said.