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Crossing Purposes: Brunswick County Residents, Workers To Feel Impact Of Bridge Repair Project

By Audrey Elsberry, posted Feb 2, 2024
Crews prepared the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge in January for a major repair project that has closed the bridge’s eastbound lanes. (Photo c/o N.C. Department of Transportation)
Businesses, commuters, construction workers and local government leaders braced at the end of January for an impending Cape Fear Memorial Bridge repair project.  

The nearly 55-year-old bridge connects Brunswick County to New Hanover County, the main link between the Leland area and the Port City. At press time, the $7.1 million repair and subsequent closure of the bridge’s eastbound lanes were expected to begin on Jan. 29. The project will affect both counties as traffic diverts to alternative routes during the estimated four-month repair process.  

The project will disrupt traffic flow across the region, affecting commuters and local businesses, but some Leland businesses are taking an optimistic approach to the project’s interference with the crossover from Brunswick to New Hanover.
“When the [lanes] are closed, people may travel less into New Hanover County, and then I’m hoping that it actually increases awareness for the businesses that are on this side of the bridge, you know, within Brunswick County itself,” said Donna Ruggiero, owner of Brunswick Beer Xchange on Village Road in Leland.  

Several business owners expressed Ruggiero’s sentiment. One of Leland Brewing Company’s owners, Mark Said, expects business to increase. His brewery already benefits from Leland residents not wanting to cross the bridge to get a drink or dinner, he said. 

Landon Barker, who owns Southport and Leland Ace Hardware stores, said most of her customers will do anything to not have to cross the bridge.  

“If I don’t have it in stock at my store, they’re like, ‘Where else can I get it where I don’t have to cross the bridge?’” she said.  

The repair need comes from the bridge’s steel stringers, which are parallel beams that support the bridge’s road deck. These stringers are aging and need to be repaired, said Chad Kimes, N.C. Department of Transportation’s Division 3 engineer. He said the stringers and road deck are beginning to sag, which can be felt when driving over the bridge.  

The bridge eventually needs to be replaced, but local leaders in the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) are trying to figure out how to fund a replacement, which is estimated to cost more than $400 million. 

Between New Hanover County, Brunswick County and the state of North Carolina, some WMPO members feel that responsibility for the bridge’s upgrades does not fall squarely on one entity’s shoulders.  

Mouhcine Guettabi, the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s regional economist, said about 4,000 people commute from New Hanover to Brunswick, more than double the number of commuters going in the opposing direction. NCDOT conducted a traffic survey and recommended commuting alternatives to the public during lane closures. The public was encouraged to ride Wave Transit buses and shuttles or carpool, and employers were encouraged to allow their employees to work from home or create alternative schedules not during peak traffic hours. 

The manager at Shirley’s Diner in Leland, Hiten Jethwa, said he does not think the lane closures will significantly impact his routine. He plans to leave his house earlier when he commutes from Wilmington to Leland for work, but most of the employees at the diner live nearby in Leland.  

Barker also lives in Wilmington and commutes across the bridge for work. Right now, it takes her about nine minutes to get from her home to her Leland Ace Hardware store. She said she knows that will not be the case once construction starts on the westbound lane.  

Barker said her children go to school in Wilmington, so while the eastbound lane is closed, she must organize alternative plans to retrieve her kids from school if she needs to get there urgently.  

“I’m going to be prepared to sit in traffic for about 30 minutes,” Barker said. “You just got to mentally prepare.” 

Nicole Weller commutes to Leland to teach golf lessons. As a frequent commuter across the historical bridge, she suggested installing traffic cameras on alternative routes like River Road and N.C. 133. 

Kimes said traffic cameras will be operational on the detour routes’ major intersections. While they do not show live traffic feeds, pictures are taken every three to five minutes and uploaded to the NCDOT’s project website,  

Multiple commuters said they understand the bridge repairs are necessary, and the months-long project will ensure the bridge’s structural integrity until officials find a way to replace it.  

NCDOT officials planned the repair project in the spring to avoid hurricane season, said Josh Pratt, the department’s senior assistant resident engineer. The project’s timeline places Wilmington’s N.C. Azalea Festival in the middle of the project’s current schedule.  

The annual event brings visitors and money to the city in a short period, Guettabi said. NCDOT plans to pause construction for the week of the festival. As the construction schedule stands now, the eastbound lanes will be repaired by that time. After the festival, on April 9, the westbound lanes are set to close and be completed by the end of May, according to NCDOT.  

Pratt said this schedule is subject to change, and if the work on the eastbound lanes is not done, it could spill over into the April window. 

NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland said officials hope the project will be complete by festival time. If it isn’t done, the detours will remain to service the incoming visitors. 

Every hour of the project is pre-planned, Kimes said. NCDOT pre-ordered the stringers and road deck to arrive precisely as contractors need the parts. The stringers are set to arrive on Feb. 12 and the deck on Feb. 28. If either of these parts arrives late, construction will be delayed, Kimes said.  

While only an estimated 10 construction personnel will be repairing the bridge, Haviland said the project is unlike anything she’s experienced at the NCDOT. The organization is pulling its personnel from across the state to aid in incident control, among other supporting roles.  

Pratt said there is limited space for workers on the platform underneath the bridge, which was completed Jan. 25. Safety and room to operate the necessary equipment are why more construction crew members cannot be added. Double the crew would not mean double the productivity.  

While the repair is going on, the need to replace the bridge looms. NCDOT recommends eventually replacing the bridge with a 135-foot fixed bridge that will not need to be raised or lowered for maritime traffic. The cost of this project is an estimated to be more than $400 million.  

Caitlin Melvin, Division 3’s deputy engineer, said the NCDOT applied for a large bridge grant through the federal government. This grant supplies the grantee with 50% of the project’s total cost, so NCDOT would hope for about $250 million. With the addition of other grants, NCDOT officials hope to get 80% of the project cost covered.  

Melvin said the department won’t know whether it received the grant until mid- to late-spring.  
The remaining 20% of the bridge cost, approximately $87 million, would be the state’s match to the provided funds. Implementing a toll on the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge could supplement the state-matched funds.  

A traffic revenue study found a toll of $1 would raise $174 million over 35 years, Kimes said. A toll of $2 would generate $359 million over the same period.  

WMPO board members, including Belville Mayor Mike Allen and New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, strongly oppose a toll on the bridge. But the WMPO would have to wait to vote to place a toll on the bridge. As of press time, a WMPO board vote on exploring all replacement options, including a toll, was set to take place Jan. 31. Regardless, some WMPO members reject the idea of charging their constituents a toll and refuse to include a toll in the plans.  

Melvin said a toll would allow NCDOT to match funds provided by federal grants, which could negate the need for a toll. A toll also makes the project more competitive when competing for grant money.  

Because the project is so expensive, it competes in a statewide pool for funding. Melvin said that if a toll is to be included in the plans, it could lessen the total project cost, put the project in smaller pools in grant applications and lessen the competition for the additional funds.  

“Then hopefully,” Melvin said, “you come up with a solution to where we wouldn’t have to use that toll.”

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