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

Chad Kimes, Division 3 engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation introduced the presentation.
Kelly Kenoyer
Chad Kimes, Division 3 engineer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation introduced the presentation.

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.

This afternoon, local transportation officials heard a proposal to replace the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge with a privately operated toll bridge. A decision will have to be made relatively soon, but some details still haven’t been worked out. Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo was quick to express concern.

WHQR's Ken Campbell and Ben Schachtman discuss what we know -- and don't know -- about the proposed toll bridge plan.

The North Carolina DOT made the presentation, starting with a grim prognosis -- a replacement for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is unlikely to be funded by the state before the end of its functional life-span.

According to Division 3 Engineer Chad Kimes, "based on our revenues today and our funding available today, it is very unlikely this will be funded in the next 10 years."

This was the wind-up to a proposal -- the NCDOT told Wilmington-area metropolitan planning organization, or the WMPO, that they’d been approached by an unnamed private company, who had offered a public-private partnership to build a new toll bridge.

The proposal from an unnamed private company, presented by NCDOT. Article continues below:

The new bridge would be owned by NCDOT, but built, maintained, and operated by a private company. The company proposed to build the bridge within 5 years, and maintain tolls for 50 years -- the proposed toll rates remain confidential.

NCDOT presenters made it clear that this was an ‘idea,’ not a formal proposal -- and, that NCDOT would not move forward without support in part because in North Carolina all toll projects are local decisions.

But that decision would have to be made soon -- while NCDOT presenters said there was no explicit expiration date, there is a ticking clock of sorts.

According to Chris Werner, NCDOT director of technical services, "their proposal did have a time duration on it, pending a decision. If a decision wasn't made relatively soon, obviously the terms of their proposal would change."

WMPO, which is made up of representatives from regional county and municipal government, will have to weigh their options. New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, noted there are still unanswered questions, including the impacts on businesses that use the bridge.

NCDOT presenters acknowledged that many of these questions would have to be answered after the WMPO decided whether or not to move forward.

If they do, the ‘idea’ will become a public request for bids, open to other companies.

WHQR spoke with Mayor Saffo shortly after the presentation concluded.

Saffo said while he'd heard conversations in the past about a new toll bridge to the south of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge — the now-scrapped Cape Fear Skyway and Cape Fear Crossing plans — "there was never it's never been in discussion, to my knowledge, since I've been mayor, and since I've been on council about a tolling of the Cape Fear [Memorial Bridge]. This is the first time I've heard about it."

Saffo questioned why the city's existing roadway was being effectively tolled while other new projects around the state were getting funding without tolls, and he expressed frustration that the city had not been part of the discussion — and the city's ambitious rail realignment project, which hinges on a rail bridge across the Cape Fear River — didn't appear to have been considered. Saffo also expressed concerns about the socially inequitable impact of a toll bridge on certain neighborhoods in Wilmington.

The City of Wilmington later released a statement from Saffo:

“As Mayor of Wilmington, I would be remiss in not expressing serious concern with the proposal to replace the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge with a toll bridge.

For more than 50 years, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge has served as a vital connection between Wilmington and its neighbors. A toll bridge would impose a new expense on the tens of thousands of daily commuters who rely on this bridge, which has major implications for our region.

This is a matter of equity for those who travel to work across this bridge every day to make ends meet. This is a matter of livelihood for Wilmington businesses and restaurants already struggling with labor shortages. This is a matter of quality of life for those in our historic downtown whose roads would be clogged and damaged by cars and trucks in search of the only remaining free route across the Cape Fear River.

Our residents pay the very same taxes as every other North Carolinian and expect that when basic critical infrastructure needs to be replaced, it would remain free and accessible to everyone. While I recognize this was an unsolicited proposal to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which has an obligation to evaluate its merits as with any other proposal, I hope the department will take into consideration the many concerns about how this project would affect our community.”

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. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.