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WMPO Turns Down Cape Fear Toll Bridge Proposal

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Jul 28, 2021
Cape Fear Memorial Bridge (File photo)
Area transportation officials have decided not to move forward with exploring a public-private partnership to replace the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge with a potential toll facility.

The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) voted​ 7-5 to turn down the toll bridge concept at its monthly meeting Wednesday afternoon.

In November 2020, the N.C. Department of Transportation received an unsolicited proposal from a private firm for a potential public-private partnership to replace the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, which included a proposed toll concept as a way to move up the timing for a new bridge.

The idea was made public earlier this month during a previous WMPO meeting.

NCDOT officials have said they would not move forward in the exploration phase of the proposal without support from WMPO.

The proposal looked at designing and constructing a 135-foot vertical fixed bridge -- not a draw bridge like the current Cape Fear Memorial Bridge -- that would run between Wilmington and Brunswick County over the Cape Fear River and would include three lanes in each direction and a walking path.

The proposed bridge design was based on option two of NCDOT's Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement feasibility study, which is estimated to cost nearly $246 million.

NCDOT officials have said that is unlikely that the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge would get funding for replacement in the next 10-year transportation funding cycle.

Several WMPO board members expressed the need for other funding options for the bridge and changes at the state legislative level to better fund big transportation projects like the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement.

Jonathan Barfield, a WMPO board member and New Hanover County commissioner, expressed his interest in finding other ways to find the money to build a bridge replacement.

“If we had a list of other options, I would support this today,” Barfield said during Wednesday's meeting. “But I don’t see any other options today. I see one option, and that is to toll the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge [replacement] ... Well, representing 240,000 citizens in New Hanover County, I would never vote on any option like that without having the other options on the table that I could present to the other folks that I represent. Show me the other options. Show me those plans. Give me the options to choose from, and then I can make a choice.”

Chad Kimes, NCDOT's Division 3 engineer, said that the pot of funds that are used to provide the money for state transportation projects on its priority list are struggling to get funded and that soon a re-evaluation by NCDOT willl likely take place to review and possibly make changes to its 10-year transportation project funding plan.

A motion was also present to include language in the resolution to explore other possibilities for funding the project on top of the toll bridge concept. That was turned down by a board vote.

“We don't have all the information to make a decision tolling the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge [replacement] because we just don’t have any information on it," said Deb Hays, a WMPO board member and vice chair of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

"We also don’t right now have many other options presented to us," she said. "And that was why I wanted to certainly advocate to have that verbiage put in the rest of the resolution, which began as a substitute motion to let the powers that be understand we want to see any and all options, not just the toll option, but we do have a lot of questions about that option, and we need more information."

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo released a statement following the decision in support of the board's vote.

“I am pleased with the outcome of today’s vote in which the WMPO board rejected the proposal to replace the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge with a toll bridge," Saffo said in the release. "I look forward to working with our state and regional partners to find a responsible solution to replacing this iconic bridge that does not involve double taxing Wilmington residents.”
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