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Local Panel Green-lights Evaluating Cape Fear Memorial Bridge Toll

By Emma Dill, posted Jan 31, 2024
The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization voted on exploring a toll as an option to replace the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. (File photo)
A toll could be part of a future replacement of the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.

The Cape Fear region’s top transportation board voted 8-5 during a contentious meeting Wednesday in support of a resolution asking state transportation officials to evaluate a tolled option as they work to find funding to replace the bridge. 

Those voting against a motion to move forward with a toll evaluation included Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, Wilmington City Council member Luke Waddell, New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman and Navassa Mayor Eulis Willis.

More than 70 people turned out to Wednesday’s meeting, including several who held up signs that read “No Toll Tax.” During a public comment period, more than 15 people address WMPO members, speaking both in support of and against keeping the toll option on the table.

In recent weeks, Wilmington and Leland leaders have approved recent resolutions opposing a bridge toll and earlier this week dozens gathered at a rally pushing back against tolled options.

The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) needed to tell the North Carolina Department of Transportation by Feb. 1 whether an option for a toll should be included in future bridge replacement evaluations. However, the board can vote down tolling at any point after the initial vote.

The tolled option will be explored as the project moves through NCDOT’s Prioritization 7.0, which will be used to evaluate projects in the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) between 2026 and 2035.

The bridge replacement is estimated to cost $437 million, Chad Kimes, N.C. Department of Transportation’s Division 3 engineer, told the WMPO board in November. Adding equipment for a toll would add an estimated $7 million. A traffic revenue study found a toll of $1 would raise $174 million over 35 years, and a toll of $2 would generate $359 million over the same period, according to Kimes. 

The categorization of tolled or untolled determines the state’s prioritization of the project and is a decision the Department of Transportation cannot make without a vote from the WMPO. A $2 toll could boost the project’s prioritization and provide a strong chance for funding, Kimes told the board in November.

Speakers at Wednesday’s meeting included representatives from the local business community who urged the WMPO board to support evaluating a tolled option.

Wilmington Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Natalie English asked the board to support the resolution to help ensure the project earns a higher score in the Department of Transportation’s prioritization process.

“The projects with the highest scores are then selected for funding and scheduling. Projects with some level of consideration for alternative funding tend to score higher,” she said. “With a significantly higher ranking, I believe we can identify funding partners that will eliminate the need for tolling.”

Tyler Newman, president and CEO of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy (BASE), also urged the board’s support.

“We believe that voting in favor of the resolution as written is an important step as we pursue options to score, fund and replace a critical piece of infrastructure, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge,” he said.

Residents from both Wilmington and Leland addressed the board, opposing the resolution and raising concerns about the Department of Transportation’s prioritization process.

Shelley Allen, chair of Brunswick County’s Democratic Party, told the board that a “vote today to approve a toll study will send us down the path to a toll reality.” She said a toll option would be “an unfair regressive tax” on local residents.
 
Leland resident Brayton Willis emphasized the impact a toll could have.

“We know who's going to be hit the hardest by the tolls – the poorest among us,” Willis said. “Those on fixed or limited incomes, those who struggle to pay for essential services like clean drinking water or other utilities or insurance bills.”

Board members, including Saffo, Waddell and Barfield, asked questions about the state’s project prioritization process and voiced concern about the resolution.

“What I find interesting is that we have three major roadways going into Memorial Bridge, Highway 421, Highway 17 and Highway 74/76,” Saffo said. “Three major roadways and it doesn't score. The scoring process in my opinion is broken.”

Waddell said he believes approval of the resolution could mean a future toll vote, which would come back to the board.

“I believe we should put ourselves and the people we represent in the best position for success in the future,” Waddell said, “and prohibit what I believe the current proposal sets up for the future, which is a binary vote of either toll bridge or no bridge.”

Board member Landon Zimmer spoke in support of the resolution.

“We're trying to keep our options open, keep the door open. If we vote no, we're done. There's no more funding,” he said. “We have to think outside the box, guys. This is what it takes to get funding.”

Barfield reminded attendees on Wednesday they were debating the funding of a state-owned asset.

“Today we're fighting over somebody else's stuff,” Barfield said. “The bridge doesn’t belong to New Hanover County or Brunswick County it belongs to the state of North Carolina.”

Zimmer ultimately made a motion to approve the resolution, which was seconded by Brunswick County Commissioner Mike Forte.

Transportation officials have known for years that the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge needs to be replaced. The bridge was constructed in 1969 and is considered “functionally obsolete,” according to the resolution approved Wednesday. More than 60,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day and by 2045 it's expected to carry an estimated 81,900 each day between New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

In July 2021, the WMPO board voted down a proposal for a public-private tolled bridge replacement option, citing concerns with the cost of tolls and the impact on traffic on the Isabel Holmes Bridge. The next year the board adopted a resolution urging transportation leaders to consider all possible options, including tolls and previous proposals, to fund a bridge replacement. 

In December, the N.C. Department of Transportation applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation for a $242 million large bridge grant to fund a bridge replacement, according to the approved resolution.
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