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Leland town council members voice residents’ concerns about proposed toll bridge

Published: Jul. 12, 2021 at 5:14 PM EDT
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LELAND, N.C. (WECT) - The North Carolina Department of Transportation made a presentation to Leland Town Council Monday about a proposed toll bridge to replace the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. The division engineer in charge of the presentation also fielded quite a few questions from council about concerns residents have with paying a toll to cross a bridge drivers currently cross at no charge.

DOT Division Engineer Chad Kimes said an unsolicited proposal at the end of 2020 from a private company prompted this discussion. The private company would like to fund the construction of a replacement bridge and maintain it in exchange for collecting a toll from drivers who want to cross the bridge for the next 50 years. The amount of that toll has not been determined.

“People are concerned,” Leland Town Councilwoman Veronica Carter told WECT. “I mean, we have people who go back and forth every day, either as workers or volunteers, and we’re asking them to pay a toll, something we’ve never done in this area before. So obviously folks are concerned, they don’t want to pay extra money to go across the bridge and they are wondering why that funding isn’t coming from other places.”

Kimes said he was not hopeful funding to replace the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge would become available through traditional government sources within the next ten years. He said building costs continue to go up and there is not enough revenue coming in to fund all the road project proposals.

“The main benefit: you have the potential for it being fully funded right off the bat, but it still has to go through a competitive bidding process,” Kimes explained. “You know, this doesn’t mean that the person that submitted this proposal gets the project, it’s just an idea at this point.”

While Kimes assured town council the current bridge is safe, he said it is more than 50 years old, and getting more expensive to maintain over time. Rehabilitation on the movable span portion of the bridge is required every 10 years. The last rehabilitation was done in 2019, at a cost of $15 million.

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is also one of the few movable span bridges left in this part of the state (in addition to the Isabel Holmes Bridge and the Wrightsville Beach Bridge), which the DOT is hoping to eventually phase out because they are more difficult to maintain, and require traffic to stop when the bridge goes up for boats, barges, and commercial vessels.

In May 2020, the DOT considered four different bridge options in a feasibility study, which ranged in price from $185 - $213 million for a replacement fixed span bridge, to $457 - $596 million if transportation officials opted for another movable span bridge. One of the fixed span proposals would include six lanes and a lane for pedestrians and bikers to cross the bridge. Kimes said there is not currently a bike crossing between the counties.

The private company presented one option — the fixed span bridge with 135-foot clearance.

To move forward, the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) would have to give the toll bridge a favorable resolution, which could be considered as soon as their next meeting. If that happens, a traffic revenue study would then be conducted to determine how much toll might be, and the impact of that toll on traffic. If the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is replaced with a toll bridge, Kimes said it would still be free for drivers to cross the Isabella Holmes Bridge and the I-140 bridge.

There are a few other toll roads in North Carolina, but no other toll bridges. The company proposing this private-public partnership has not been identified at this point for confidentiality reasons, but Kimes shared that they were a national design team with experience in North Carolina. WMPO would have the potential for getting up to $100 million in toll revenue as well, in addition to having a major construction project crossed off their to-do list at no cost to them.

Carter said it is becoming clear that replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is going to be a necessity, it’s just a matter of when and how. She said she will continue to advocate for what’s best for residents in Leland.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we give them the best bang for their bucks as tax payers, and let them know that we are concerned, we do care, and we do hear them,” Carter said.

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