OPINION: We Don’t Need A 135’ Fixed Bridge

By Travis Gilbert, posted Jan 25, 2024
Travis Gilbert
By now, our community understands why the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge needs to be replaced. 
The remaining, unanswered question is why we need a replacement bridge with a 135-foot vertical clearance for maritime traffic, or twice the height of the current Cape Fear Memorial Bridge in its lowered, standard position? 
NCDOT estimates that a 135-foot fixed bridge will cost $437 million, whereas cost estimates for a 65-foot fixed bridge are consistently $150 million cheaper. A 65-foot fixed bridge could be funded and constructed quicker, without a toll, and is the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative. 
Advocates for the 135-foot fixed bridge state that a 65-foot fixed bridge hinders industry upstream due to larger ships being unable to navigate underneath the shorter bridge. Yet, NCDOT identified only one business utilizing ships taller than 65 feet: Kinder Morgan, which sold last June with perpetual, restrictive covenants restricting the property’s future uses and leaving vertical clearance requirements undetermined. 
Even when Kinder Morgan was in operation, bridge openings for industry vessels were just 18% of openings between June 2020, and June 2023. 
Over half of the bridge openings were due to training and maintenance. Of the 350 times the bridge was lifted for maritime traffic, 221 lifts accommodated pleasure crafts, such as sailboats. Bridge logs unfortunately do not clarify if these openings were precautionary or essential.
Significantly, the standard bridge clearance on the Intracoastal Waterway, robustly utilized by pleasure boat traffic, is 65 feet. Do we really need to spend $437 million for a bridge twice the height of bridges over the Intracoastal Waterway?
Moreover, a 65-foot fixed bridge would not be the sole barrier to maritime-based industrial development upstream of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. 
Between the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and where the river channel ends just south of the Interstate 140 Bridge, the channel depth decreases from 41 feet to 25 feet. This section of river is excluded from dredging projects that seek to deepen the channel. 
The eastern riverbank north of Smith Creek is designated as conservation in New Hanover County’s Future Land Use Map. Across the river, the Highway 421 corridor continues to grow and diversify industry for our region. 
Yet, this growth is dependent upon interstate shipping, not maritime shipping. 
Recent 421 corridor projects, including Kessebohmer’s under-construction facility and the recently completed Wilmington Trade Center, are distribution centers for vehicular shipping, not water-based shipping. 
Industry requiring more than 65-foot vertical clearance upstream from the Port of Wilmington simply does not exist and its future existence requires more dredging, wetlands destruction, deforestation – and all their negative impacts.
So, if a 135-foot replacement bridge isn’t necessary, why is this option inputted into the State Improvement Transportation Plan? 
This plan, called STIP, scores infrastructure projects using many variables, including the total cost of the project. Based on the STIP algorithm, the highest-scoring projects receive funding. 
Replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge continues to score low due to the $437 million price of a 135-foot fixed bridge. Now, tolls are being considered to reduce the project’s cost and increase the project’s score, which still does not guarantee timely state funding. 
Advocates for a toll prefer leveling a financial burden on thousands of commuters each day to preserve “what if” dreams of upstream industry. Little to no discussion is afforded to an option over $150 million cheaper with higher likelihood of state funding: a 65-foot fixed bridge.
The fact remains that we are not to have arrived at any preference between a 65-foot and 135-foot fixed bridge until the planning and environmental study process, or merger process, is completed at the conclusion of 2024. 
However, our region has been convinced, without regulatory standing, that we must accept a 135-foot fixed bridge and we must accept a toll to fund this bridge. 
It’s time to be straightforward with our region: A 135-foot fixed bridge is not essential, and the Coast Guard has a process for reducing clearances of navigable waters. 
When we accept these facts, replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge will be achieved faster, cheaper, without a toll, and with the least adverse impact on Eagles Island and the Wilmington Historic District. 
Travis Gilbert is the executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation. The group is advocating for a Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement that has the least adverse impact to the Wilmington Historic District.

Editor’s note: The Business Journal runs Op-Eds about topics of local news interest. To submit an opinion column for consideration, email [email protected].
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