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Study Finds Replacement Options For Cape Fear Memorial Bridge

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted May 12, 2020
Replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is estimated to cost between $196 million and $608 million, according to a feasibility study released this week. 

The N.C. Department of Transporation's feasibility study on the potential project wrapped Monday with the submission of final documents, which shows a glimpse of what types of bridges could be used to replace the current aging bridge built in 1969, said Chad Kimes, NCDOT's Division 3 engineer. 

The purpose of the feasibility study was to get an idea of what the bridge options are, and also cost estimates to "see what kind of money we are talking about and go from there," Kimes said.

The study on the bridge replacement began last summer, about the same time NCDOT stopped work on another bridge project, the long-studied Cape Fear Crossing study, which looked at both a new route and a new bridge that would connect New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

"The Cape Fear Crossing is a new route altogether. [This] is a bridge replacement of an existing bridge that we know has to be replaced," Kimes said. "Anytime you have an existing structure ... you have to continue maintaining that.

"We know the lifespan of this bridge. We have to do these major rehabs six to eight years out, and once you get into those costs every six to eight years -- and plus you have additional yearly maintenance costs -- it's getting to the point where we have to start looking at replacing it," Kimes said.

The most recent major rehabilitation project on the bridge completed late last year was $15 million, he said.

The feasibility study generated four different options, variations of a six-lane bridge with a median and a 15-foot multi-use pat, states the study.

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is a four-lane structure with a vertical lift that opens up for passing ships.

Two of the lower-cost study options are bridges that do not move, at either 65 feet or 135 feet in height with a price tag of $196.6 million and $245.7 million, respectively.

"In recent years, NCDOT has replaced many movable bridges with fixed span bridges, particularly in the coastal areas such as Oak Island, Sunset Beach and Surf City," states the study.

The estimates include the cost of construction, relocation of utilities and the cost of land purchases that would be needed for construction.

Another option is a movable, 65-foot bridge, which would cost a total of $487.7 million. And the fourth option includes a 65-foot movable bridge with a rail component, which has a $608.7 million price tag.

Kimes said the fourth option could tie in with another regional project, the Wilmington Rail Realilghment, in which the city of Wilmington is seeking to relocate city rail lines.

"Option 4 includes a separate bridge for single-track rail extending on the south side of the vehicular bridge. A single substructure would accommodate both bridges. The bridges would have independent, movable center lifts," the study states.

All four options proposed could modify the existing eastern loop ramps at South Front Street and tie into Wooster and Dawson streets in downtown Wilmington. The 65-foot options would have fewer impacts on downtown communities and businesses, states the study. The fixed structures will have fewer operational and maintenance costs.

The next big step is to go through the NCDOT's funding process to get more studies on the project going and to fund its right-of-way and construction.

The options would go through further study in a merger process, a process that would bring together state and federal agencies and look at all the environmental and human impacts, Kimes said. That typically takes two to three years to complete, he said.

"When we go through the merger process, planning documents, it goes into more detail about these four options and how far we would go with those options. So right now, this is a high-level look at what a 65-foot, 135-foot and a couple of movable [span bridges] would cost us," Kimes said.

But for a cash strapped agency, finding the funding may be difficult. Since NCDOT is below its cash floor balance, no new agreements or contracts can move forward and affects the department's ability to purchase right-of-way for projects.

Kimes said the division is looking at placing the project in the next round of NCDOT's funding process. 

"More to come on the future of this," Kimes said. "Funding is going to be a challenge, but we will get there."
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