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Bridge Toll Option Discussed Among County Commissioners

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Jul 13, 2021
A toll bridge is on the table as a possible replacement for the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. (File photo)
Should leaders decide to further investigate a toll bridge scenario to replace the 51-year-old Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, one study could cost about $30,000, transportation leaders said Tuesday.

The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners during its regular meeting Tuesday, heard about the unsolicited public-private bridge development proposal through a presentation from Chad Kimes, N.C. Department of Transporation Division 3 engineer.

NCDOT leaders are discussing what limited details they can release on the proposal from a private developer while waiting to see if the region's transportation planning entity wants to move forward with the next steps in the process. 

The proposal, which includes a fixed, 135-foot bridge with six lanes and a multi-use path, is a design based on option two of NCDOT's Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement feasibility study. The study estimated the option two project to cost nearly $246 million.

At least two county commissioners Tuesday questioned whether there have been discussions about the possibility of getting the bridge project funded through the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan proposed at the federal level.

Currently, there is no funding at the state level for such a project. 

"Based on our revenue and 10-year program, it's very unlikely that we can replace this bridge in the next 10 years based on our funding today," Kimes said.

Commissioner Rob Zapple asked if NCDOT had looked into potential federal funding through that bill.

"I don't think that anyone would argue about our Cape Fear Memorial Bridge being a very serious infrastructure need," Zapple said.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield also questioned Kimes about the bill, which is now being considered by federal legislators. 

"I would hope that NCDOT, recognizing both Senators [Richard] Burr and [Thom] Tillis, are part of that 21-member bipartisan coalition for this infrastructure bill, will be reaching out to them and asking them to support projects, number one, in their state, but also lobbying to have projects supported right here in New Hanover County, which is the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge," Barfield said.

"I know that we're trying to use our leverage and partners to have those conversations as well," he added.

Barfield also questioned the cost of continuing the next steps of such a proposal.

"It seems like NCDOT wastes a lot of resources in next steps," Barfield said. "Throughout the whole process of planning the Cape Fear Crossing and of the things that went into that, over $10 million was spent on that process and the next steps, only to have NCDOT come in and say, 'We're scrapping the project.' You know as a taxpaying citizen, I would hate to see on a regular basis projects come to the table and then all of the sudden decides this isn't working."

NCDOT received the unsolicited toll bridge proposal from the developer at the end of November, Kimes said. After vetting the proposal, NCDOT presented the proposal to the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMOP) first during a closed session, and then an open meeting last week.

The project can't move forward, however, unless it is first given a resolution of support from the WMPO board.

WMPO Executive Director Mike Kozlosky said last week that the board is slated to discuss the proposal at its monthly meeting July 28.

Other things that would be considered, should the idea move forward, are public acceptance of tolling, and the collaboration needed between all surrounding communities, the state, and other partners, Kimes said. 

One of the next steps in the process – should it gain WMPO approval – is a traffic and revenue study, that would give NCDOT and area transportation leaders a range of what to expect for the tolls. 

"The final toll rates are not known until it goes to the competitive process; until we choose the best proposal and see what the rates are at that time, but there are steps that we can see what the ranges could possibly be," Kimes said.

That step would cost about $30,000 for a traffic and revenue study, something that NCDOT would have to completely fund to do its due diligence, Kimes said.

As part of the proposal, the developer has proposed to fully fund the project with a 50-year tolling duration. It would also be responsible for the design, environmental regulatory, public outreach and permitting processes, as well as construction and performing maintenance on the bridge, Kimes said.

Going the public-private partnership route would mean that a replacement for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is fully funded from inception, Kimes said.

"The replacement schedule would be advanced instead of waiting until we can figure out how we would find it through the traditional ways. It can be greatly accelerated," he said. "And then lastly, the maintenance responsibility falls to the developer. Once it's constructed the developer would maintain it for those 50 years."

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge was built in 1969 and just turned 51 years old, he said. Repairs and routine maintenance on the bridge also require funding, including the most recent major rehab in 2019 for $15 million, he said.

The primary purpose of such a private-public partnership, he said, "is to leverage public funds or other resources within private investment to accelerate, enhance or otherwise improve the delivery, operation, maintenance of public transportation infrastructure." 

The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce is also slated to hear a presentation on the toll bridge project proposal July 27, which is scheduled to include members of NCDOT and the WMPO.
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