Note: Greater Wilmington Business Journal asked me to write about the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge for a recent issue of WilmingtonBiz Magazine. Below is that column reprinted here with permission.
Inevitably, I elicit chuckles in almost every meeting I attend by simply saying the word “bridge.” I don’t mind creating an opportunity for people to laugh. Laughing is good for the soul, right? The tactic, however, has been tremendously effective. People in our region are aware that a replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge (CFMB) is a top infrastructure priority for the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce.
Of all the transportation needs in southeastern North Carolina, why is this one our top priority? For, at least, the following five reasons: the aging infrastructure of the CFMB is becoming more and more costly to maintain; the CFMB connects to the route to destinations to and from the Charlotte region and other points west; the CFMB is a key connection for freight trucks going to and from the NC Ports at Wilmington; our population growth make the CFMB increasingly insufficient for traffic volumes; and the CFMB is not currently funded in the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP).
The CFMB opened to traffic on October 1, 1969. At over 50 years of age, the bridge is nearing the end of its lifespan. Annual maintenance costs continue to increase, and replacement parts are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. Some parts must be specially made to order because they are no longer in production.
The CFMB is a critical piece of the connection between the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County beaches to points west and south. Population growth in Brunswick County is leading to increasing numbers of commuters crossing the CFMB. Access to health care facilities, entertainment and shopping is impaired when the drawbridge is raised. Tourists travelling to our beautiful beaches, contributing to our economy, will find it increasingly difficult to get here as the bridge will need increasing down time for maintenance.
The NC Ports at Wilmington is a critical component in our state’s economy. Current and future expansion and improvement will increase the number of freight trucks in and out of the area. The CFMB is the most efficient route for the trucks going to the port. Freight companies will choose our competitor ports in South Carolina or Georgia if the route is impaired for increased maintenance needs.
Southeastern North Carolina is one of the fastest growing regions in the country. In the ten years between the 2010 and 2021 Census, Brunswick County grew by 27%, or 29,260 people and New Hanover County grew by 11% or 23,004. That growth is forecast by the Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) to grow by another 126,154 people by 2024 for a total population in the two counties of almost half a million people.
The North Carolina General Assembly, in 2013, made changes to how transportation dollars are distributed throughout the state. The changes ensured that money follows growth and economic development. The changes also prevent powerful legislators from influencing distribution to benefit their own districts. The days of legislators and influential NC DOT Board members bringing home major investments, outside the prioritization process, are over. The process involves public comment and the local MPO (in our case, the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization) developing their list of priorities. The CFMB is currently the top unfunded priority in the WMPO’s list. Why is such a critical piece of infrastructure unfunded, you might ask. Because there are many transportation-related infrastructure needs in our region and the cost of replacing the CFMB would impair our ability to invest in other important projects.
I know that some people would like to pull up the proverbial (or literal) drawbridge to stop that growth. However, the secret is out that our region is a fantastic place to live, work, and play. Business leaders are expanding their companies and others are relocating here, following the people who are moving here. Now, we must invest in the infrastructure we need to accommodate that growth. We must continue to remain open to any, and all, options for funding a replacement.
That might include grants from the federal Infrastructure and Jobs Act passed earlier this year. Those grants carry some state and local funding matches. As an unfunded priority, the CFMB isn’t likely to be a top candidate. We might be able to find ways to make it a more attractive candidate.
It might include advocating for increasing the revenue sources that contribute to transportation infrastructure. In fact, we’ve had some success in this area working alongside the NC Chamber and the Destination 2030 Coalition. During the 2022 session of the North Carolina General Assembly, the sales tax associated with auto-related expenses (motor oil, windshield wipers, etc.) will now go into transportation funding rather than funding the general operating needs of our state.
It might include advocating for, and supporting, unique ways of funding infrastructure like a public private partnership (P3). Private companies can bring capital to the table and construct a project like the CFMB much more quickly than traditional methods. The population explosion we’re expecting deserves consideration of bringing the CFMB to completion sooner rather than later.
And, finally, it might include tolls. There simply isn’t enough money, through the gas tax and the sales tax on auto-related expenses, to fund all of the critical transportation needs in the State of North Carolina. State leaders will be forced to consider other options to access revenue in the future. Tolls require visitors to pay and will limit future increases in the gas tax, the sales tax or the income tax. We can advocate that local residents pay less in tolls, and we can increase public transportation options that limit the tolls imposed on local residents.
While I will likely continue to elicit chuckles every time I say bridge in a meeting, I hope that citizens and elected officials in this region will also begin to understand the need to address this critical infrastructure ASAP, and before all the extra people land in our beautiful region to fill jobs and contribute to our economy.
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