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Chamber Urges Considering "all Possible Options" To Pay For Bridge Replacement

By Scott Nunn, posted Feb 22, 2022
The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce's public policy committee passed a resolution urging officials to consider all possible options to fund the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. (File photo)

When Wilmington was pushing for a bridge across the Cape Fear River in the early 1960s, a caravan of buses took residents to Raleigh to make the case for a new span.

For years, state leaders had paid plenty of lip service to the need for the bridge, but couldn’t muster the political will to pay for it or even decide exactly where it would be located. Wilmington kept the pressure on, and on Oct. 1, 1969, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge opened to traffic. 

Now 50 years later, N.C. Department of Transportation officials and other state leaders agree it’s time to replace the bridge, which is considered safe but near the end of its lifespan and not sufficient to carry growing traffic loads.

But just like the 1960s, the area is having to fight to find funding for a replacement bridge, one for which conceptual proposals have been made but money to build it remains elusive.

With rapid growth continuing on both sides of the river and the port booming, the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce’s public policy committee passed a resolution Tuesday urging “consideration of all possible options to fund a replacement for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.”

Chamber president and CEO Natalie English underscored the urgency of getting plans and funding for a new bridge in the pipeline:

“The local business community understands the importance of prioritizing a replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and this vote demonstrates their readiness to thoroughly assess all possible funding options,” English said. 

With no obvious source of traditional funding in sight, both state and federal transportation officials are looking to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which President Joe Biden signed into law in November.

Edward T. Parker, deputy administrator for the Federal Highway Administration’s North Carolina division, told Chamber members that the IIJA is expected to provide $91 million in annual funding through 2026 “for the replacement, rehabilitation, preservation, protection, or construction of bridges on public roads.”

The Cape Fear River bridge is considered in “poor” condition and is in line to receive some of that funding. But with many other bridges in the state in worse condition, the money will only go so far. 

Chad Kimes, chief engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Willmington-based Division Three, said the IIJA funds mean fewer projects likely will be delayed by increasing costs of materials, land and labor, but it’s not clear what that would mean for a new bridge, which is proposed to be built alongside the current span. 

While acknowledging that the IIJA money will benefit the area, English was skeptical of relying on it to fund the bridge project.

“While I am certain the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will be beneficial to infrastructure and transportation across our state, it is not a silver bullet to the unique issues we’re facing in our region,” English said. “Our tri-county population is expected to grow by 34% and this bridge is the critical connector for employment, shopping, healthcare, and recreation for our region.”

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