NCDOT presents idea to replace Cape Fear Memorial Bridge with toll bridge

The bridge is reaching the end of its lifespan, but the NCDOT said that it’s extremely unlikely the state will be able to go it alone to pay the huge price tag
Published: Jun. 30, 2021 at 6:06 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A toll bridge could one day replace the decades-old Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, according to a proposal unveiled by the N.C. Department of Transportation on Wednesday.

During today’s regular meeting of the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Board, representatives with the NCDOT presented an unsolicited proposal to replace the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge with a toll bridge.

“This was an unsolicited proposal for the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. It would be, according to the proposal, a toll bridge, but this is just an idea,” said David Piepmeyer, WMPO chairman. “We’re not in the step in the process where this would be accepted by the WMPO, this is just asking for support out of this region in order to proceed.”

The bridge is reaching the end of its lifespan, but the NCDOT said that it’s extremely unlikely the state will be able to go it alone to pay the huge price tag to replace the bridge in the next decade. During the bridge’s most recent major rehabilitation in 2019, which cost $15 million, the department conducted a feasibility study to replace the bridge.

“Based on everything that we see today — based on our revenues today and our funding available today — it is very unlikely this will be funded in the next ten years,” said Chad Kimes, NCDOT Division Engineer, during Wednesday’s presentation.

The private entity approached the department with the idea to replace the bridge, even though the state did not ask for any proposals. It would be a public-private partnership that would fully fund a new bridge on day one. However, there would be tolls to help cover the costs.

The proposal also includes adding lanes and a pedestrian/ bike path connecting both sides of the river, as well as a “low-maintenance structure with a design life of 75 to 100 years,” according to the presentation.

But it’s still very early in this process, and what was presented today is simply just an idea. If the WMPO decides to move forward, there would be a competitive selection process where other groups would be able to submit bids.

“The next step that we do need to move forward is just the WMPO showing that they are interested in NCDOT moving forward with this proposal. Now, with that, it does not mean that it would be this exact plan this exact firm,” said Lauren Haviland, an NCDOT communications officer. “We would have to go through a traditional process like where we get other bids from other private firms, so there is a lot of steps that would need to go ahead before we make any types of decisions.”

NCDOT did not disclose who the private entity is, other than it’s a national caliber design firm that has experience with projects on the North Carolina Coast.

A news release from the city of Wilmington, responding to the proposal, said converting the route into a paid toll “presents several challenges that warrant careful and serious consideration.”

City officials say they have not yet had an opportunity to review the proposal but remain committed with the NCDOT to find a solution to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge “that benefits all the city’s residents.”

Following the proposal presentation, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo issued the following statement:

“As Mayor of Wilmington, I would be remiss in not expressing serious concern with the proposal to replace the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge with a toll bridge.

For more than 50 years, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge has served as a vital connection between Wilmington and its neighbors. A toll bridge would impose a new expense on the tens of thousands of daily commuters who rely on this bridge, which has major implications for our region.

This is a matter of equity for those who travel to work across this bridge every day to make ends meet. This is a matter of livelihood for Wilmington businesses and restaurants already struggling with labor shortages. This is a matter of quality of life for those in our historic downtown whose roads would be clogged and damaged by cars and trucks in search of the only remaining free route across the Cape Fear River.

Our residents pay the very same taxes as every other North Carolinian and expect that when basic critical infrastructure needs to be replaced, it would remain free and accessible to everyone. While I recognize this was an unsolicited proposal to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which has an obligation to evaluate its merits as with any other proposal, I hope the department will take into consideration the many concerns about how this project would affect our community.”

Averaging more than 60,000 trips per day, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is one of the most heavily-traveled routes in southeastern North Carolina.

It’s worth noting that any plan to replace bridge would need the approval of the WMPO. While no decisions were made by the organization on Wednesday to move forward with the idea, they did vote to put it on next months agenda so board members have time to get feedback from citizens.

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