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Dec 14, 2023

Bridging Futures: The Case for Toll Funding in Wilmington’s Cape Fear Memorial Bridge Revamp

Sponsored Content provided by Natalie English - President & CEO, Wilmington Chamber of Commerce

In late January, the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization will stand at a crossroads, tasked with taking the next step that will define a generation - the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. Amidst heated debates, there’s a clear, uncomplicated solution that awaits our collective understanding.
Recently, the NCDOT presented findings from a comprehensive revenue study on the bridge's replacement. This study meticulously analyzed funding avenues, primarily tolls, predicting revenue generation and gauging traffic response to varying toll levels. It also evaluated how the bridge replacement would fare in statewide funding assessments, with or without tolls.
Let’s recap: today, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement falls short of scoring adequately for state funding given the current data-driven process. The stark truth is, without financial assistance from tolls and grants, the project will continue to remain unfunded. However, introducing a $2 toll immediately propels this project to the top spot statewide for funding consideration. Furthermore, toll implementation could significantly augment our chances for federal grants and additional funding opportunities. Imagine, with a successful $200 million federal grant application (covering up to half of the $400 million cost), the $2 toll could potentially decrease further. With additional grants and legislative support, it is possible that it could be eliminated completely.
Come late January, the regional leaders on the Wilmington MPO will deliberate whether to submit the project as a toll-based initiative. As entities deeply invested in our region’s prosperity, we've tirelessly championed the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement as our top priority. We've urged decision-makers to amass facts and keep all funding avenues open.
If the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is our number one public policy initiative, we need to show leaders in Raleigh and DC that we are committed to exhaust all options to fund this project. 
Submitting this project as a tolled endeavor is not just prudent but essential for our region, citizens, businesses, and future economic prospects. It gives us two years to further study tolling and time to identify and pursue additional funding avenues that may reduce, or potentially eliminate, a toll. 
You might wonder, “why impose a toll on infrastructure that NCDOT traditionally funds?” First, NCDOT’s funding resources, primarily gas tax revenues, are declining while construction costs surge. Secondly, our state’s funding mechanisms underwent an essential shift, emphasizing data-driven, unbiased project prioritization by depoliticizing the process. Interestingly, the original 1929 Cape Fear Memorial Bridge was originally funded through tolls.
In Louis Toomer Moore’s book Stories Old and New of the Cape Fear Region (1956), he detailed the significance of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and its history of tolling:
The double span cost $1,250,000… On December 10, 1929, 8000 people swarmed to the dedication. The sounds of honking car horns, tolling bells, tooting boat whistles and spraying fireboats filled the air when thousands of Wilmingtonians and tourists witnessed the dedication of the new bridges. A memorial to all local soldiers and sailors who served in "the World War, Spanish American War and War Between the States," the twin span ended Wilmington's roadway isolation to the west. Louis T. Moore said it represented a hope of nearly two centuries.
…The 25-cent tolls were suspended for the day while a steady stream of cars and pedestrians tested out Cape Fear's newest technological miracle. All tolls ended February 5, 1935. (Moore, 1956).
For perspective, a 25-cent toll in 1929 would equate to a $4.50 toll today.
Our community has grappled with this decision in the past. Our predecessors, driven by vision, financed a technological wonder partially by using tolls. This infrastructure realized a centuries-old dream to connect our region.
Faced with a similar decision, today's leaders should emulate their foresight and endorse submitting the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement project with a toll while committing to look for revenue options that will result in the lowest possible toll or the elimination of it altogether. 
We implore the regional leaders of the Wilmington MPO to vote affirmatively at their meeting in January to submit the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement to be scored with the inclusion of tolls. Taking this step will give NCDOT the ability to continue to pursue grants and additional funding alternatives.
At the same time, as a region, we need to work at the state level to push for prioritization of replacement funding for other “high value bridges.” As we know, there’s no pot of money that exists to fund replacement of the critical infrastructure that links so much of the coastal region, which contains other high value bridges that will need replacement in the coming years. 
In the event it has to be utilized, a potential toll isn’t merely a fee; it’s an investment in our future. It echoes our legacy, where tolls didn't just connect roads but bridged the gap between dreams and reality.
Source: Moore, L. T. (1956). Stories Old and New of the Cape Fear Region. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Co.

Written by Natalie English, President and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and Tyler Newman, President and CEO of BASE

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