Talks of a new bridge crossing over the Cape Fear River are back on the table, as community and area transportation leaders weigh in on 12 alternative routes currently under study by the N.C. Department of Transportation.
The project, formally known as the Cape Fear Skyway, went back to the drawing board after the project didn’t get backing from the state legislature in 2013. Funding, however, was included for NCDOT impact studies.
The NCDOT has since given a new name to the project, called the Cape Fear Crossing, mainly because the project is “more than just a bridge,” said Jay McInnis, project engineer with NCDOT.
The Cape Fear Crossing project seeks to improve, upgrade or create new roadways, improve traffic flow between New Hanover and Brunswick counties and enhance freight movements to and from the Port of Wilmington, according to NCDOT. It could also provide quick evacuation in the event of an emergency.
Between the former Skyway project and Cape Fear Crossing, about $9.6 million in federal and state funding has been spent on the studies over the years, he said.
Of the 12 options, two alternatives look at upgrading the existing U.S. 17, for alternatives focus on a new location and six “hybrid” locations require upgrades and a new location.
As of press time, the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) was set to discuss at its May 31 meeting, approval of a proposed resolution to support two alternatives that focus on a new location, beginning where Interstate 140 ends on U.S. 17 in Brunswick County traveling south of Brunswick Forest and across the river connecting to either Shipyard or Independence boulevards.
Members of the Downtown Business Alliance (DBA), also support these alternatives, fearing that infrastructure improvements or construction of a new bridge near the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge could be detrimental to downtown’s historical and business districts.
An average of 59,000 vehicles cross the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge daily, according to the NCDOT’s 2015 traffic counts, up from an average of 46,000 daily vehicles in 2009.
Terry Espy, president of the DBA, said local business owners are against the option that takes the crossing into downtown districts.
“Not a single business owner wanted it downtown,” Espy said. “We would love to see it [the bridge] cross over Shipyard to offset traffic and to make it easier to get around.”
Ed Wolverton, president and CEO of Wilmington Downtown Inc., said he also is hearing the same concerns from business owners and residents in the historic district where the alternatives put a new bridge in their path.
With 888 businesses in downtown Wilmington and about 11,000 people who work downtown daily, “it’s an economic engine that we need to protect, and putting in a mass transportation project that could inhibit that is a concern,” Wolverton said.
But, he added, the dozen alternatives each will have some sort of impact to human and natural environments on either side of the river, something that the current NCDOT study seeks to minimize through its studies.
Pat Batleman, member of the WMPO board representing Leland, said that her concern lies in the existing neighborhoods and development of the county, where the route takes a I-140 further south of Leland near the Brunswick Forest neighborhood.
“For Leland, because we are growing at such a fast rate and because we have quite a bit of development going on, our concern is to make sure that whatever decision is made will not be a detriment to that growth,” said Batleman, who also is Leland’s mayor pro tem.
Charlie Rivenbark, Wilmington City Council member and WMPO board member, said despite the route, the improved infrastructure would help future development in the tri-county area, in terms of convenience, transportation and distribution.
“It’s going to benefit business,” he said. “From a commercialization standpoint, I think it will spur growth – either residential or commercial. It’s just a real big-ticket item, and it could get bigger depending on when it gets built.”
The NCDOT is finishing up its study and will narrow down the dozen options over the next few months, McInnis said. The public still has time to provide input on the project, he said, adding it “makes a difference.”
A draft environmental impact statement is scheduled for this fall. The NCDOT’s final alternative pick is scheduled for report in 2019.
The NCDOT estimates it could take five years to complete construction. The projected total cost of the project is at about $1.15 billion, McInnis said, adding that amount could increase or decrease depending on the final alternative.
While the impact study has been funded, right-of way acquisitions and construction is not funded.