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WMPO Talk On Bridge Replacement Resurfaces Tolling Tension

By Johanna F. Still, posted Jul 28, 2022
The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is again facing decisions about how to go about replacing the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. (File photo)
It may have felt like déjà vu for some regional officials at Wednesday’s Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting. Leaders spent the bulk of the meeting relitigating a touchy subject: replacing the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.

This contentious and unfunded topic has come before the board numerous times in recent years and has eaten up hours of public debate. 

And all that talk has led to little action. 

“I’ve been on this board for going on six years, and we’ve been talking about river crossings for six years. And we’re actually further behind than we were six years ago,” said WMPO member and Brunswick County Commissioner Mike Forte. 

The bridge is perfectly safe to drive on today, but it’s nearing the end of its life, N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) Division 3 engineer Chad Kimes told the board. Costs to maintain it are increasing daily, he said: “Our biggest fear is what will break next?”

Kimes was there to give leaders a rundown on their options – some seemingly unrealistic, some politically unsavory. The latest estimates to replace the bridge run between about $241 million to $900 million, per figures Kimes shared Wednesday. 

NCDOT’s traditional project scoring procedure, the State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP), is unlikely to fund the bridge replacement, considering its nine-digit price tag.

If officials wanted to fund it through the STIP alone, they’d essentially be forfeiting work on all other road projects in the region for a 10-year period, Kimes confirmed. 

Last year, the board voted 7-5 to oppose an unsolicited tolling proposal, stopping NCDOT from further investigating the possibility. That proposal could have helped solve NCDOT’s cash-poor conundrum; the department has faced crises in recent years and the projected continual rise of electric vehicle use will continue to dampen gas tax revenues, which fund costly infrastructure projects.

Then in February, the day after the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce’s public policy committee passed a resolution urging the board to consider all options to replace the bridge, the board passed a similar resolution 9-3, but this time, explicitly included tolling as an option. 

A handful of board shifts and changed perspectives contributed to the reversal on tolling. 

With tolling back in the running, Kimes helped form a committee with NCDOT professionals to weigh the region’s options. 

That committee studied the following options over the past several months: 
  • Traditional delivery: This option means officials would attempt to get the project scored high enough in the STIP the next time it opens next summer to remain competitive – an extremely unlikely outcome.
     
  • Alternative proposals: NCDOT issued a request for information in April, soliciting alternative financing and operating proposals from the private sector. Nine companies submitted proposals, eight of which involved a public-private partnership, with most considering tolling as a revenue source. 
     
  • Conventional toll delivery: NCDOT could pursue building and financing a toll bridge on its own.
     
  • Revive the unsolicited proposal: Revealed publicly for the first time at the meeting, the unsolicited proposal that was rejected last year was brought forward by United Bridge Partners. This proposal could be revived, even though leaders shot it down last year. A United Bridge Partners representative (former NCDOT Secretary Gene Conti) spoke at the meeting to encourage leaders to consider the proposal. This would turn into a competitive bid process and take a few years to move through. 

Tolls alone still wouldn’t be enough to fund the entire project, according to preliminary estimates: A tolled bridge would still cost $567 million. Driver-supported revenues would offset the total cost, which could help the project score better in the traditional STIP process, Kimes explained. Grants are also possible, but not guaranteed. The project would need to be much further along in the planning process to be a contender for most grants, Kimes said. 

Officials discussed whether they should try to get some planning work done to improve the project’s chances with grants or to at least move the project forward – getting this kind of preliminary work to score well on the STIP is more realistic. Planning documents, like environmental and design work, for a project of this scope can reasonably cost roughly 10% of the project, Kimes said.

WMPO member and New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield was uncomfortable with the idea of “wasting taxpayer money on fruitless plans.” He brought up the abandoned Cape Fear Crossing, which officials spent more than $11 million studying before scrapping it due to the unlikelihood of it ever being funded. 

“I see DOT waste more money in designs that don’t go anywhere,” he said. The money could have housed the homeless or fed the hungry, he said.

Citing the $8 two-way total fee he paid in tolls while recently visiting Charlotte, Barfield questioned whether average residents who work between Brunswick and New Hanover counties can afford a similar daily fee in their budget. WMPO member and Wilmington Councilman Luke Waddell said he wanted to know more about how introducing a toll would change commuter behavior. 

One of three members who voted against exploring the idea of a toll, Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman said she felt the board’s actions lacked transparency, considering the February vote occurred as a result of an item added to the agenda mid-meeting. She wondered why NCDOT hadn’t earnestly explored solutions to replace the bridge until the board agreed tolling could be a possibility. 

“You want to toll our bridge? Go ahead and toll all the ones at the beaches too. And even the Hampstead Bypass – toll it. You want to toll one? Toll them all,” she said. “It’s just wrong for us to not find a way where it does not hurt the everyday people.”

WMPO and Pender County Chairman David Piepmeyer brought up the possibility of splitting up the project through the STIP, which is how the $429 million Hampstead Bypass was able to get funding. Instead of seeing the total price tag, the project was split into two to increase its chances of competing against other projects in the STIP. 

Forte, who was among leaders willing to consider a toll so the region can secure a new bridge, said something had to be done. “If exploring this is a step forward, I don't see how we can’t. We’re up against the clock here,” he said. “People will adapt. They’ll figure it [out] – it’s not like there's a whole lot of options.”

To move forward with any of the steps, the WMPO board has to make a decision. In the meantime, NCDOT plans to answer concerns and questions members brought up at the meeting. In order to turn a free highway into a tolled one, the WMPO board would have to approve it, per state law, leaving the board with the ultimate say-so in whether this potential funding mechanism can move forward.
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