By the year 2035, the amount of cars traversing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge every day is projected to be 103,000, said North Carolina Department of Transportation chief of staff Bobby Lewis at a meeting with the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Advisory Committee on Monday, Nov. 26. Currently, approximately 53,000 vehicles per day cross the bridge, and if no changes are made by 2035, the entire bridge system crossing the Cape Fear River would fail, Lewis said.
The purpose of the TAC’s Nov. 26 meeting was to discuss the options for replacing or supplementing the 43-year-old vertical lift bridge with representatives from the NCDOT. Replacement options included an eight- to 10-lane bridge in the same place as the memorial bridge, or a tunnel. Due to its size, the larger bridge would have to begin and end at points farther west and east than the memorial bridge on both sides of the river. The NCDOT’s preliminary plans have the bridge passing over the memorial bridge’s current terminus at Third Street and ending at Fifth Street. Some members of the TAC — including New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, Wilmington City Councilwoman Laura Padgett and Wilmington Mayor Pro Tem Dr. Earl Sheridan — were opposed to this idea due to the number of properties the traffic shift would affect, many of which could be historic structures.
“This option has too much of an impact on the people I serve here in New Hanover County,” Barfield said. “I would like to see an option that comes in at an area where there are less people affected.”
Lewis said the property acquisition costs for this project would probably be more than the bridge’s projected $450 million construction cost. If the replacement bridge was built, Lewis said it could expect a service rating of D with a forecasted 96,000 vehicles per day utilizing it.
A tunnel, Lewis said, would have to end somewhere around Tenth Street on the east side of the river. Since the portion of Wilmington closest to the Cape Fear River is at a higher elevation and gradually slopes down to the east, Lewis said the tunnel would have to be longer in order to meet the gradient. Other issues a tunnel would carry with it include storm surge protection and environmental remediation, Lewis said. A tunnel constructed near the location of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge would be cheaper than building the larger bridge in the same spot; however, one constructed south of the Port of Wilmington would cost almost $88 million more than the proposed Cape Fear Skyway.
The construction cost for a supplemental bridge south of the Port of Wilmington would range from $600-650 million, and Lewis said the Cape Fear Skyway was still not off the table.
The process for deciding the best way to address the bridge issue is currently on hold with the NCDOT suspending its work on the Environmental Impact Study — the comprehensive document that would cover the effects a new bridge or tunnel would have on the environment. Lewis said work on the EIS was suspended in 2010 because the two competing ideologies of replacing or supplementing the bridge would require too much research to complete them both. Moving forward, Lewis recommended that the TAC make a resolution to support the NCDOT continuing with the EIS report for one of the options and to form a work group to collaborate with NCDOT to ensure the study meets local expectations. Mike Kozlosky, executive director of the WMPO, said he would add a resolution supporting the continuation of the EIS to the TAC’s next meeting on Dec. 12.