State Pouring Millions Into Local Road Projects But Bridge, Rail Realignment Need More

By Cece Nunn, posted Aug 14, 2023
A slide shown during an N.C. DOT presentation to the Wilmington City Council on Monday.

When it comes to Wilmington’s critical transportation projects, it’s all about the money. 

Hundreds of millions of dollars in projects for roads, from improvements at the dreaded College Road and Oleander Drive intersection to an interchange at gridlocked Eastwood and Military Cutoff roads, have been funded, which is good news, said Chad Kimes, the N.C. Department of Transportation division engineer for the area that includes Wilmington.

But the need for dollars to replace the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and realign railroad tracks cutting through the city also emerged as topics of discussion during a presentation Monday morning to the Wilmington City Council by Kimes.

Some city officials were less optimistic about the rail realignment taking place any time during their lives than the bridge replacement. The realignment project aims to replace and improve the existing freight rail route between Navassa and the Port of Wilmington, officials have said, and create a new, shorter route that no longer intersects some of the city’s most-congested streets and most populated areas. 

The subject came up Monday when council members asked Kimes about whether it makes sense to complete road projects that could be impacted by the rail realignment. The short answer was yes, some of the road improvements will have to be undertaken before a more than $730 million (an estimate from two years ago) rail realignment is funded or takes place.

“They can’t really incorporate into their current plans (for funding projects) other projects that are not funded,” said Aubrey Parsley, the city’s economic development director, who is also spearheading the rail realignment project for Wilmington. “We are looking to wrap up our environmental document for rail realignment this year, and thereafter, it’ll take certainly a number of years to figure out the full funding picture, additional grant applications and things of that nature. So it is a bit fuzzy in terms of the timeline.”

Councilman Charlie Rivenbark said, “The bottom line is there’s no telling when that will happen. And we can sit here and wish, but in the meantime, we need better ways to move traffic.”

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo warned of consequences if the rail realignment project languishes.

“Rail realignment is a long-term prospect, no doubt about it. It is a very expensive prospect … but we have to take into consideration that the state of North Carolina is going to deepen or going to try to deepen the river to 47 feet. Our port is becoming a container port … And whether it happens today or if it happens 20 or 30 or 40 years from now, there will be a time when citizens will ask this council and other elected leaders in the state, county and local … ‘Why didn’t y’all make preparations for this?’”

The same could be said of replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, but recently some funding has been heaped on the endeavor, including $2 million for studies and $18 million to buy property across the river where the replacement bridge will have to go.

“It’s gonna be very challenging or impossible to fund it with our STIP [State Transportation Improvement Plan] dollars, so what do we do?” Kimes said to the Wilmington City Council on Monday. “So, once again, going back to looking at all possible options, we’re gonna look at potential grants. As you look at grants, they can offset some of these costs so it can score better in prioritization.”

But matching dollars will be involved with grant funding, he said.

“Let’s say you go after a $400 million grant [a current estimate on what a 135-foot, fixed-span replacement bridge could cost] … you’re gonna have to come up with anywhere from a $200 million to $100 million match. So you’ve got to be able to identify that money before you go after the grant.”

As a result, the already funded traffic and revenue study, and a planning document, will be necessary, Kimes said.

The 54-year-old bridge underwent a $15 million rehab project in 2019, Kimes said, before detailing some of the fractures and small component replacements crews are having to do these days.

“It is safe to drive on, let me make that clear,” Kimes said. “It’s been inspected today.”

A traffic and revenue study is analyzing the impact of a toll, and how much (the dollar amount) of a toll, on the Isabel Holmes Bridge and existing corridors.

As for the present, replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is a top priority for the region, Kimes said. "We will figure that out."

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