Every day, at least 65,000 cars, trucks, vans, SUVs, 18-wheelers … you get the idea … rumble across the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge on their way to and from Wilmington.
Over the next decade, that number is expected to increase to at least 82,000.
“I feel confident we’ll get there before 2045,” said Chad Kimes, the N.C. Department of Transportation engineer for the Wilmington region.
In one of the fastest-growing parts of North Carolina and the U.S., every mode of transportation is under scrutiny, not just the 54-year-old Cape Fear Memorial Bridge as it nears the end of its useful life.
But replacing the bridge, and how to pay for a project with an early estimated cost of $400 million, is at the forefront. While small pieces are breaking off and the NCDOT is monitoring and repairing fractures, the push for replacement is more about the cost of bridge maintenance, officials say.
“It is safe to drive on, let me make that clear,” Kimes said during a presentation to the Wilmington City Council in August.
But when considering a replacement, “the way we look at that, we look at how much maintenance dollars we’re putting into it over a period of time,” Kimes said, noting that the last major rehabilitation of the bridge took place about five years ago at a cost of about $15 million.
In addition to funding, officials have to conduct study after study before replacing a bridge. Currently, they’re working on a traffic and revenue study analyzing the impact of a toll. They want to find out how a toll, using varying potential toll amounts, would impact the Isabel Holmes Bridge and surrounding corridors when drivers choose not to cross the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge to avoid paying the toll.
“The reason why we’re going through the steps that we’re going through is because we understand that the bridge needs to be replaced,” said Mike Kozlosky, head of the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. “But to replace a bridge – it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Kozlosky cited multiple examples of road improvements that took decades to become reality, including the extension of Military Cutoff Road in northern New Hanover County.
“We were planning that project when I got here in 2004,” he said. “And it’s hopefully going to open in September.”
It’s up to the WMPO whether a toll would be charged to fund the bridge. But the word “toll” is a sticky one in some political sectors. The WMPO’s board voted 7-5 in 2021 against a toll proposal that sparked a heated debate.
Tolling to pay for the replacement is still an option, evidenced by the traffic and revenue study underway, but grants could be more palatable to state and local officials.
“We continue to look at that both at the state and federal level to see what grant opportunities might be out there,” Kozlosky said. “But one thing that’s important to remember is even if you go after a grant, you still have to have the state match.”
A 135-foot, fixed-span replacement bridge, at a cost of at least $400 million, is the preferred option, officials say.
“We can design fixed spans (that last) up to 100 years now,” Kimes told the city council.
The fact that the environmental planning process, which will finalize the exact route, has begun for the replacement bridge is a big step, Kozlosky said.
“That’s not a document that will be complete in a few weeks; it’s something that’s a several-year planning process,” he said. “That was a critical step that the department (the DOT) took, recognizing the importance of this project, to begin that planning and environmental document.”
Kozlosky added, “It can help to inform us as we move forward and as we continue to look for potential funding opportunities.”
For rail cars carrying freight, train tracks crisscross the city of Wilmington, bringing traffic to a halt as the cars pass by or the tracks are under repair.
In 2015, then-city councilwoman Laura Padgett spearheaded an effort to push forward the relocation of those tracks.
As the city’s website explains, the Rail Realignment Project “will replace and improve the existing freight rail route between Navassa (Davis) Yard (a rail yard across the Cape Fear River) and the Port of Wilmington by creating a new, shorter route that no longer runs through some of Wilmington’s busiest streets and most densely populated areas. Once a new freight route is in operation, the city would work to repurpose the existing route for public use. The project will improve freight rail operations, public mobility, public safety, economic development, and quality of life in the region.”
It’s an expensive and complicated undertaking that city council members, in their questions and comments on the subject in August, indicated they don’t expect to see take place in their lifetimes.
“The bottom line is, there’s no telling when that will happen,” Wilmington City Councilman Charlie Rivenbark said Aug. 21.
The project was estimated to cost $730 million in 2021. The relocation of the tracks could also have an impact on the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement.
While the environmental document for rail realignment is expected to wrap up in 2023, “it’ll take certainly a number of years to figure out the full funding picture, additional grant applications and things of that nature. So it is a bit fuzzy in terms of funding timeline,” said Aubrey Parsley, the city’s economic development director, who was first hired in 2019 as Wilmington’s rail realignment director.
The project also requires buying the rights-of-way from railroad operator CSX.
Freight rail isn’t the only concern. With federal dollars for passenger rail on the table, the potential of re-establishing the long-lost link from Wilmington to Raleigh seems within reach. Passenger rail reached the end of its line in Wilmington around 1967.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) earmarked $66 billion to improve passenger and freight rail infrastructure, with $44 billion set aside for discretionary grant programs.
“The IIJA also introduced the Corridor ID Program, a visionary initiative aimed at bolstering the development of existing and future intercity passenger rail corridors,” wrote Wilmington Chamber of Commerce officials in an August news release. “Under this program, substantial funding is made available to identify and facilitate projects vital for the successful implementation of passenger rail services. The NC DOT’s Rail Division seized this remarkable opportunity and submitted an application for the Wilmington to Raleigh corridor in March 2023.”
Not only does the chamber support the return of passenger rail to the Port City, but additional advocates have emerged to bolster the effort.
Gene Merritt, a Wilmington developer who worked on the successful effort to extend Interstate 40 in the 1980s and ’90s, and local entrepreneur Steve Unger formed Eastern Carolina Rail to make the passenger rail corridor a reality.
“It’s not going to be an overnight thing,” Merritt said. “It’s going to take some time, but it’s something we feel would be fantastic, to have passenger rail service from here to Raleigh.”
Intercity rail would offer advantages that include “economic advancement and substantial support for regional growth,” according to the chamber’s statement.
In the meantime, NCDOT officials said Aug. 29 they hope to hear a decision on their March application this fall.
FLYING HIGHER THAN EVER
Jeff Bourk told New Hanover County officials recently that Wilmington International Airport is one of the fastest-growing airports in North Carolina and the U.S. in terms of seats.
“On average, airports across the country are up 10%. North Carolina is up 14%, and ILM is up 32%,” the airport director said in August. “And this has to do with our new airlines and new service at ILM. This time last year we had about nine stops at ILM. We’re at 18 now.”
ILM welcomed its first low-cost carrier, Avelo Airlines, in 2022, and its second, Sun Country Airlines, hosted its inaugural flight to Minneapolis in June.
In July, one of ILM’s legacy carriers, American Airlines, announced it would launch a nonstop flight to Miami that would begin in November.
Current and future projects aim to keep up with ILM’s growth, including 600 new parking spaces, a runway repair, taxiway relocation, a parking deck and another terminal expansion.
“We’ve exceeded the capacity of the new terminal expansion, and it’s not fully complete,” Bourk said. “So, we have to start on the next phase of terminal expansion … and we received a grant to begin the environmental (study) on that project.”
MAJOR ROAD IMPROVEMENTS
On a site that stretches from Military Cutoff Road through to Eastwood Road, apartments are beginning to rise as part of a mixed-use development estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Center Point, a joint venture between Wilmington-based Swain & Associates and Charleston, South Carolina-based The Beach Company, is adjacent to the existing mixed-use development Mayfaire. Center Point is expected to include luxury apartments and high-end restaurants and shops, along with a road, the Drysdale Drive Extension, running from Military Cutoff Road to Eastwood Road.
Not far from the Center Point site, a flyover is planned to ease the problem of backed-up traffic on Military Cutoff Road.
“This one is coming up for construction in 2026. We have started acquiring right-of-way,” Kimes said of the flyover, the term for a high-level overpass.
Crews are already working on the Drysdale Drive Extension. Referring to Center Point, Kimes said, “It is our intent to have the extension open prior to that opening.”
Working with the WMPO, the NCDOT was able to accelerate a project along a section of College Road from Gordon Road to Market Street where interchanges will control access, he said.
An interchange at Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and College Road will have a significant meaning, Kimes said. “For the first time, you’ll be able to come in on I-40 without stopping all the way to MLK.”
The $138 million project “is great news for the main entrance in Wilmington. This is right around the corner with right-of-way starting in about a year.”
While many major roadway projects to keep traffic flowing will be finished in coming years, their impact will be felt sooner rather than later.
“Soon, it’s going to be hard to drive around this community, this region, without seeing orange construction cones everywhere,” Kozlosky said. “I had thought it would have been here a little bit sooner, but given DOT’s programming challenges, they had to delay a number of projects so we didn’t get there as soon as I thought we would. But we’re on a path.”
As Kimes explained to Wilmington City Council, several interchange projects are funded, but Kozlosky said it’s a Catch-22.
“We’re going to be making all of these improvements in the community to enhance mobility, decrease congestion,” he said, “but during the time that we’re making those improvements, we’re going to hear even more complaints about traffic because people are going to be sitting in traffic waiting for those improvements to be made.”
OVER LAND AND OVER SEA
Changes are also in store for Wave Transit, which operates buses in Wilmington, and the Southport-Fort Fisher ferry service.
Wave received part of a $10.4 million state grant to extend bus service to what are considered more rural areas, which in the case of the Wilmington region will allow for the expansion of Wave’s micro transit program to Castle Hayne, said Brianna D’Itri, mobility manager for the Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority.
Nationwide, transit agencies have not rolled back up to pre-COVID ridership numbers. But Wave’s ridership number for fixed-route services for fiscal year 2023 climbed to nearly 688,000, lower than 2019’s 1.2 million but higher than 2021 and 2022.
The transportation authority’s board of directors approved systemwide improvements last July, Jonathan Dodson, Wave’s deputy director, said in an email.
“Ridership has spiked on routes that were upgraded to 30-minute frequency,” he said. “Recent ridership gains and service enhancements are showing great progress, and we look forward to continuing to improve our system under the board of directors’ and incoming executive director Mike Hairr’s leadership.”
Hairr was expected to start in September.
Wave officials said they are about to embark on public outreach efforts to create the agency’s latest short-range transit plan.
On the waterways, the Southport-Fort Fisher ferry system received $5 million from the state to build additional mooring facilities at its Southport terminal to accommodate additional ferry vessels, said Tim Hass, communications officer for the NCDOT Ferry Division. He said construction is set to begin in 2025.
“Longer-term, the Ferry Division is seeking funding for several Southport projects in the next State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP), including replacements for (the ferries) the Southport and Fort Fisher and funding for an eventual third vessel on the route,” Hass said.
The main challenge for the ferry division, like so many other aspects of transportation improvements, is budgetary, he said.
“State law prohibits the division from exceeding its budget, and due to higher-than-expected fuel prices last summer, the division needed a $2 million loan from the State Highway Fund to maintain service levels over the summer months,” Hass said Aug. 24. “We await the passage of the 2023-24 (state) budget in order to determine future levels of service.”