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Toll-free: Wilmington officials shoot down private toll replacement proposal for Cape Fear Memorial

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is running out of time, but the NCDOT is out of money. Now what?
Benjamin Schachtman
The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge needs to be replaced, but the NCDOT is out of money. For the last month , the region debated a privatized option.

After hearing a series of public comments — mostly opposed — the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization voted 7-5 to reject the further exploration of an 'unsolicited proposal' to privatize the operation of a replacement bridge. That leaves the future of the Cape Fear Memorial in serious question but, for now, rules out a toll bridge.

The vote caps a month of public debate, which began after NCDOT publicly revealed to WMPO members that it lacked the funding to replace the bridge — and implied that maintenance and repair costs would continue to increase. NCDOT presented a proposal — from an unnamed company — to privately build and manage a new bridge. Details, especially the expected toll rate, were not released.

Related: Wilmington-area transportation officials to consider privately-managed toll bridge as a replacement for Cape Fear Memorial

While NCDOT insisted it would look for other options alongside the proposal, it effectively put WMPO in a bind, and on the hook for the decision, since no other funding streams had materialized in conversations about the situation and NCDOT said it could only move forward with local support.

Public sentiment: Basically, 'no'

Nineteen public speakers sent in comments or showed up in person to weigh in on the bridge. Most were against, but a few seemed to be willing to consider the proposal further, albeit with pinched noses.

Among the in-person speakers who were opposed to the bridge were Leland Mayor Pro-Tem Pat Batleman and Spence Broadhurst, former Wilmington mayor and current chair of the $1.25 billion community foundation that's managing the proceeds from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

Broadhurst said he opposed what he called the "double tax" of a toll option. He said he supports public-private projects, in general, and tolls, when used correctly. But Broadhurst made the distinction that toll roads are appropriate for new routes — when there's an alternative, non-toll route available — but sharply noted that there are no other replacement projects in North Carolina that are being tolled.

Questions? Lots

Following the public comment period, WMPO member and New Hanover County Commissioner Deb Hays asked a series of questions, including what would happen next if the board would support further study of a toll bridge.

NCDOT engineer Chad Kimes answered that first there would be a 'traffic and revenue study, which would determine appropriate tolling rates and how the traffic flow might react to those tolls. Then, a public comment period, which Kimes suggested would be significant. Kimes noted there could also be some legislative action.

At that point, the project would move to 'scoping' — a more granular determination of what the bridge would look like — and then bidding, which would be open to both the company whose 'unsolicited proposal' began the current debate, and other companies. That process would be the same as other requests for proposals.

Hays didn't ask, and NCDOT didn't clarify, what opportunities there would be to change course on the toll-bridge option.

NCDOT officials clarified that they would continue to look for other funding opportunities in addition to privatization, including NCDOT and funding from a federal infrastructure bill (which finally gained serious traction with Senate Republicans today). However, they also noted that the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge would not be eligible for federal funding unless it was on the state's prioritization schedule — and due to recent delays, that couldn't happen until at least 2023.

Call the question

After lengthy debate, at times confused over procedural issues, most agreed that the toll option was unpalatable but two camps emerged: first, was County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, who cut through much of the bureaucratic prevaricating of NCDOT officials, and pointed out that if there were no other current viable options besides a private toll bridge, then moving forward would almost inevitably mean a toll bridge for the region.

Barfield also questioned the NCDOT's choice to leave it up to local officials, after having unilaterally made other decisions, in his example the canceling of the Cape Fear Crossing (a third Wilmington-Brunswick bridge, on which NCDOT spent millions on planning and studies).

Barfield was joined by Wilmington City Councilman Charlie Rivenbark, who drew the line at any toll option.

Deb Hays put forward a more sanguine motion to consider the proposal — as long as it came with NCDOT's commitment to look for other funding options, as well. Hays' approach seemed to win over a few fellow members, but not enough.

The final vote was 7 'yeas' to reject the proposal:

  • Brenda Bozeman, Town of Leland
  • Charlie Rivenbark, City of Wilmington
  • Mike Allen, Town of Belville
  • Neil Anderson, City of Wilmington
  • Jonathan Barfield, Jr., New Hanover County
  • LeAnn Pierce, Town of Carolina Beach
  • Eulis Willis, Town of Navassa

And 5 'nays,' who wanted at least some level of consideration of the proposal:

  • Deb Hays, Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority
  • Hank Miller, Town of Wrightsville Beach
  • John Ellen, Town of Kure
  • Landon Zimmer, NC Board of Transportation
  • Frank Williams, Brunswick County

David Piepmeyer, Pender County, was absent.

It remains unclear what is next for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. Several WMPO members suggested that the root problem wasn't NCDOT at all, but the General Assembly — and suggested going to their legislative representatives to ask for better options.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, who had been very critical of the proposal, sent out a press release almost immediately after the WMPO vote:

“I am pleased with the outcome of today’s vote in which the WMPO board rejected the proposal to replace the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge with a toll bridge. I look forward to working with our state and regional partners to find a responsible solution to replacing this iconic bridge that does not involve double taxing Wilmington residents," Saffo said.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.