Area transportation officials debated another tolling proposition for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement during a meeting Wednesday afternoon.
Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (WMPO) board members struggled to agree on whether classifying the project as a tolled bridge would help or hurt the chances of receiving state funding.
The N.C. Department of Transportation needs a decision from the WMPO by Feb. 1 on whether an option for a toll will be included in future bridge replacement plans. But the board can strike down tolling at any point after that initial vote, which is expected to take place in late January.
Chad Kimes from the NCDOT presented board members with a traffic study at Wednesday’s meeting. He showed projections for toll-generated revenue and spending on the project with and without the toll revenue.
The bridge replacement is estimated to cost $437 million, Kimes said. Adding equipment for a toll would add an estimated $7 million. The traffic revenue study found a toll of $1 would raise $174 million over 35 years, Kimes said. A toll of $2 would generate $359 million over the same period.
This categorization of tolled or untolled determines the state’s prioritization of the project, Kimes said, a decision the NCDOT cannot make without a vote from the WMPO. A $2 toll would boost the project’s prioritization and provide a strong chance for funding, Kimes said, hypothetically.
NCDOT already submitted the latest plans to the state as non-tolled but has until Feb. 1 to add a tolled classification. A vote to include a toll option would provide the WMPO with state funding options for both a tolled and untolled plan, said David Roy, CFO of the N.C. Turnpike Authority. The state would also need to amend either local or state laws to allow a toll to be added to an existing road.
Landon Zimmer, a managing partner at Zimmer Development Co., member of the WMPO board and member of the N.C. Board of Transportation, urged other board members to vote in favor of the toll option.
“It’s not a commitment to a toll road. It's a commitment to explore options, meet the evolving and expanding needs of the area and make informed decisions,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer was adamant that the option for a toll shows Wilmington is serious about the project and could result in state funding, negating the implementation of a toll, citing Charlotte and Raleigh as success stories.
Some WMPO members, including New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield and Belville Mayor Mike Allen, disagreed with Zimmer. They doubted Zimmer’s examples of other cities’ successes, citing those projects may not have been replacing existing roads, like in Wilmington’s case, or had a lower price tag.
Neil Anderson, Wilmington City Councilman and member of the WMPO, told the Business Journal that Zimmer has a unique perspective from a state level that some of the local members of the board don’t have. He said he feels like Zimmer and Kimes are telling the board, "Let us put this option on the plans so we can get this done."
Anderson, who will no longer be on the WMPO board when it takes its latest vote on a potential bridge toll, said no one on the board wants a toll; the board already voted on that. What this next decision will do is help get the bridge replacement funded, which is what everyone wants, he said.
Barfield made his stance clear that he would never vote to put a toll on the bridge. He said the state is responsible for replacing infrastructure.
Several other board members joined in Barfield’s sentiments about state responsibility. Board member Luke Waddell, who is also a city councilman, cited North Carolina’s gas tax, the highest in the Southeast, he said, as money community members are already paying that is supposed to go toward replacing failing infrastructure.
Lynn Barbee, a member of the board and mayor of Carolina Beach, synthesized in his statement a bit of both sides of the argument.
“I don't see another option in the next 15 years unless we think Raleigh is just going to roll over and give us money,” Barbee said. “And I hate the toll.”