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Cape Fear Crossing Crossed Off NCDOT's List

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Aug 13, 2019

The long-studied Cape Fear Crossing project has come to a halt after the N.C. Department of Transportation took it out of its upcoming long-range plan.

NCDOT will not continue planning and design work on the highway bridge project at this time, officials said in a news release Tuesday.

The decision to cross the Cape Fear Crossing project off the list was made this week as NCDOT officials were reviewing the project, said Chad Kimes, deputy division engineer with the state agency’s region that includes New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties.

The issue with keeping the project going, Kimes said, has boiled down to funding the $1.1 billion project.

“Right now, it is impossible to fund this entire project … ,” Kimes said Tuesday.

The Cape Fear Crossing project was a study to find another way over the Cape Fear River between New Hanover and Brunswick counties to improve traffic flow.

The NCDOT was considering six corridor options – down from 12 proposed routes in late 2017 -- to connect U.S. 17 and Interstate 140 in Brunswick County to U.S. 421 near the Port of Wilmington.  Road improvements, upgrades and new roadways were included among the options.

Those options, which were under a public comment period this year, received criticism during public meetings from some residents on what the project could do to neighborhoods and businesses.

Officials had been expected to narrow the study down to one preferred route by the end of the year.

The decision to put the brakes on the Cape Fear Crossing project came after a new version of the draft State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP), called Prioritization 5.0, was revised last week.

When the draft STIP 5.0 plan, which covers the years 2020-29, was released Thursday, several projects were knocked off the list due to NCDOT fund balance issues tied to impacts from natural disaster responses and MAP Act settlements.

In that draft plan, nearly $21 million was set aside for Cape Fear Crossing for right-of-way acquisition and utilities.

The funding in the STIP 5.0 plan, however, wouldn’t have been enough for right-of-way acquisition on the entire project, which would have been hundreds of millions of dollars, Kimes said.

“Basically, this project is a $1.1 billion-dollar project and the $21 million is nothing on this. If there would have been enough money to go out there and acquire all the right of way, then we would have continued on with the corridor [study]. But the soonest we could receive additional funding would be past 2032, and even then, it would not be a guaranteed that it would be enough,” Kimes said. “Based on those facts right now, we are not going to pursue the Cape Fear Crossing project at this time.”

While New Hanover County Commissioners Chairman Jonathan Barfield acknowledged some of the pushback the project received from Brunswick County residents, he said traffic needs continue to increase.

“To not have a fourth crossing [over the Cape Fear River] to me is doing a disservice to folks in Brunswick County and beyond,” he said Tuesday.

Barfield, who is the longest-serving member on the board of the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO), chaired the board back in 2010 and 2011 when the project was called the Cape Fear Skyway project.

That project went back to the drawing board after it didn’t get backing from the state legislature in 2013. That’s when the project was renamed the Cape Fear Crossing, Kimes said.

So far, about $11 million has been spent on the project, with nearly $5 million spent since 2013, Kimes said.

“We would be doing a disservice for the region if we don’t try to make this happen,” Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said Tuesday, also pointing to future traffic issues. “You know elected officials get a lot of criticism from a lot of citizens that say we never plan for things, and here we have something that is going to be a serious problem for New Hanover and Brunswick counties if we don’t have [another] crossing.”

Saffo noted that funding the project has always been an issue.

And with the ever-growing interest in the region “the growth is still going happen whether we like it or not. And I would just hope at some point they will find the funding. But we are going to feel the effects of it. We are already feeling the effects of it,” Saffo said.

The Cape Fear Crossing project could still be considered for future transportation improvement plans, if it is submitted by the WMPO, NCDOT officials said in Tuesday’s release.

But for now with the project on hold, Kimes said the NCDOT is going to place an emphasis on upgrading existing infrastructure to address the area’s ongoing traffic issues, including doing a feasibility study on what the impacts would be for replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and upgrading the bridge to either a six-lane or eight-lane bridge.

The study would be needed to put it into prioritization in a future STIP plan, which gets revised every two years, Kimes said.

“I think the focus is to look at existing infrastructure, first and, if we can make that work and identify the need for the next 20 to 30 years, that would definitely be less costly,” Kimes said. “We’re concentrating on existing right of way and existing infrastructure that we have to try to bring the cost down to improve the traffic in that region. We are well concerned about the traffic in that part of the area, and we will continue to pursue some type of project for the region.”

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