Tolling Resurrected: WMPO, NCDOT To Talk Bridge Replacement

By Johanna F. Still, posted Jul 26, 2022
Area leaders will reconsider the option of introducing a toll, among other options, to help finance a replacement for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge at a meeting Wednesday. (File photo)
After regional officials participated last year in a high-stakes vote against considering a tolling proposal as a potential solution to fund a replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, the alternative is now back on the table.

In that contentious discussion last summer, the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) board voted 7-5 to reject the tolling proposal

On Wednesday, the WMPO board will hear a three-pronged approach from N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) as it relates to replacing the bridge: 1) traditional delivery; 2) conventional toll delivery; and 3) alternative delivery. 

The idea for a driver-supported model first arose via an unsolicited proposal submitted to NCDOT last year from a still-undisclosed company that had a plan to replace the aging bridge using revenues generated by motorists. Vitriol from the public was swift: Many wanted no part in paying additional fees to use infrastructure traditionally covered by their taxes alone.  

At the time of the initial vote, the WMPO board shot down NCDOT’s ability to further investigate the option, that if approved, would have eventually turned into a years-long inquiry including a competitive proposal process. 

NCDOT has faced financial crises in recent years, and the likelihood of a project of this scale securing the share of state funding it needs has appeared thin. 

Though officials often point to the bridge as one of the region’s top infrastructure priorities, its replacement didn’t land on NCDOT’s latest State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP), which is the mechanism that scores local projects against one another every two years while competing for a fixed pool of public money. The project’s hefty price tag is a main reason it hasn’t made it to the STIP. 

Cape Fear Memorial Bridge first opened in 1969 and has become antiquated, with parts that are expensive to fix and maintain. NCDOT officials have said it makes more financial sense to finance a replacement rather than continue costly upgrades. Newer NCDOT bridges (like the high-rise in Surf City, for example) can enjoy a longer lifespan and have fewer components that require updating.

Back when NCDOT last conducted a replacement feasibility study in 2020, the department estimated a new structure would cost about $200 million and would be constructed just south of the existing bridge. A new study is now necessary with updated figures, according to NCDOT. 

Over the past year, Wilmington Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Natalie English has championed prioritizing a replacement bridge. On Feb. 22, the chamber’s public policy committee passed a resolution urging the consideration of “all possible options” to replace the bridge. 

The following day, during a discussion item added to the agenda at the meeting, WMPO passed a resolution 9-3, urging consideration of “all possible options to include tolling and previous proposals” to fund the replacement bridge. During the meeting, NCDOT Division 3 engineer Chad Kimes shared that the department’s 10-year program was about $12 billion over-programmed. 

Compared to the previous 7-5 rejection, four additional votes in favor of considering all proposals tilted WMPO’s power. 

Since the July 2021 vote, WMPO’s membership has changed slightly: Carolina Beach representative Mayor Lynn Barbee added support to the possibility in February after former mayor LeAnn Pierce voted against it last year; (Brunswick County’s representative, Mike Forte, recently voted in favor of the option, as previous representative Frank Williams had last year). 

Also, Belville Mayor Mike Allen and Wilmington City Councilmen Charlie Rivenbark and Neil Anderson each moved camps from objecting to being in favor of the option. Other votes in favor that remained include New Hanover County Commissioner Deb Hays, Wrightsville Beach Alderman Hank Miller and NCDOT Board of Transportation member Landon Zimmer (Kure Beach Councilman John Ellen, who voted in favor in 2021, was absent in February).

Three representatives remained steadfast against the possibility of tolling in both votes: New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman and Navassa Mayor Eulis Willis. 

As part of a traditional delivery approach, NCDOT will evaluate the bridge replacement’s viability and how it may score during an upcoming STIP, according to an agenda item for Wednesday’s meeting. This process also involves pursuing existing public grant opportunities or provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that may apply. 

In a conventional tolling approach, NCDOT will use traffic and revenue projections to calculate financial feasibility of the project. 

And finally, the department will issue a request for information to solicit “innovative solutions,” including potential buildability concepts or financial alternatives, according to the memo. 

NCDOT will not study or evaluate the solicitation of local financial participation or requests to the N.C. General Assembly as part of its inquiry. 

Not included in the WMPO memo but an alternative recently proposed includes the city of Wilmington's consideration of combining the replacement with its own lofty rail realignment project, as reported by Port City Daily. In a request for qualifications issued last week, the city is seeking a firm to evaluate "the potential synergies of a shared bridge" to support a new railway and roadway. The solicitation is a collaborative effort on behalf of the city, WMPO and NCDOT, according to the RFQ.

WMPO meets at 3 p.m. Wednesday. Stream the meeting online.
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