At the end of this month, the Cape Fear region’s top transportation board is expected to vote on whether to explore all options – including a toll – to replace the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
Hank Miller, who chairs the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO), is quick to point out that the vote, which is expected at the board’s
Jan. 31 meeting, is not a yes or no to a toll. Instead, it presents an option for transportation officials to study an array of replacement alternatives, according to Landon Zimmer, a WMPO member and a member of the N.C. Board of Transportation.
“This is not a vote on a toll,” Zimmer said Wednesday. “This is a vote to explore all options, and, of course, that does include a toll road.”
Other local officials, including Jonathan Barfield, who sits on the WMPO and New Hanover County’s Board of Commissioners, have voiced persistent opposition to a toll. Lynn Barbee, a WMPO member and the mayor of Carolina Beach, said he also opposes a toll at least for now.
But Barbee plans to support the vote at the end of the month to explore all replacement options.
“I want to go forward and see what all the funding opportunities are. If that's a toll, we’ll vote on that at a later time,” he said Wednesday.
WMPO member and Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman said on Wednesday she’s “totally against” the toll option. “It’s not fair that Southeastern North Carolina is being treated this way,” she added.
Navassa Mayor Eulis Willis also said he opposes a toll, and he expects the Navassa Town Council to consider a resolution against tolling later this week. However, Willis said he would carefully consider the perspectives of the region's other leaders ahead of this month's vote.
Some other community members, including Wilmington Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Natalie English, have said leaving a toll option on the table might be necessary as officials look at other possibilities.
At an event in December, English showed her support for an up to $2 toll on the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge to fund the bridge replacement project. She said she does not want a toll, but one might be necessary, at least for a time, to complete the project.
Zimmer said moving forward with exploring all options, including a toll, would improve the rating for funding a Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement and could set the project up to receive more funding at the federal and state levels.
“This is kind of the only option we've got right now is to explore all options, and it cost us nothing to do this,” he said. “I don't understand why people wouldn't be interested in showing their constituents that they tried every avenue before shutting this down.”
Other board members have expressed substantial opposition to a toll option. On Tuesday, the Wilmington City Council unanimously approved a resolution against tolling.
“The city of Wilmington wishes to express its overwhelming resolve against the use of any tolls as a financing method for costs associated with the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge,” the resolution states.
“Be it further resolved that the Wilmington City Council hereby challenges the state of North Carolina through the NCDOT to derive a more equitable funding alternative for the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge – one that ensures the economic vitality of the region without placing disproportionate costs on the users of an already-existing vital regional transportation link.”
Council member and WMPO Vice Chairman Luke Waddell introduced the resolution. Waddell recently authored an opinion piece
in the Greater Wilmington Business Journal that argued a toll would be a “double tax” for residents of the Cape Fear region who already pay gas taxes and other fees to fund the N.C. Department of Transportation.
“The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is existing infrastructure and the funding of its replacement should have been properly accounted for over the last half-century of its existence,” Waddell wrote. “The initiative underway to force the issue of tolling is designed to shift the burden of the state’s budgetary shortfall onto the citizens of the Cape Fear region, who have already been taxed for it.”
Waddell also notes in the piece that “tolling the Cape Fear Memorial bridge would make it the first project in the history of the state to replace an existing roadway utilizing a toll.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, other council members also spoke out against tolling, including WMPO member and Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo.
“It shouldn’t just be the people in Brunswick County and the people in New Hanover County that pay for a piece of infrastructure that has been used for half a century paid for by all of us,” Saffo said Tuesday. “It’s just wrong on every single level, and there’s other mechanisms and ways that the state can find money to make this a reality if they so choose.”
“If we all allow this to happen then every roadway in the state of North Carolina that’s an existing roadway could be turned around and taxed and I’m very much against taking a public asset of this magnitude and giving it to a private entity to make money on," he said. "It’s just wrong on every single level and it should not have even been brought forward as an option in any way shape or form.”
This story has been updated to clarify Natalie English's position on a potential bridge toll.