NCDOT's Bridge Closure set to late January, local officials still scrambling to respond
NCDOT owns and operates the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, and is the sole decision-maker on repairs. After announcing the closure December 1, NCDOT and local government agencies have scrambled to plan around the closure- and communicate those plans to the public.
After NCDOT provided more details on the upcoming closure of the Cape Fear Bridge, public officials held an hour-long brainstorming session/press conference to discuss plans.
As WECT reports, NCDOT provided the following timeline on December 20:
- January 11: The contractor will start temporary lane closures on the outside lines in both directions from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. to build a work platform and make other preparations. The closure will then shift to the inside lanes to build a barrier wall, and the outside lanes will be open.
- January 28: Both lanes heading into Wilmington will be closed. Crews will be working during the day.
- March 31: Inbound lane repairs complete, ideally in time for the Azalea Festival.
- April 9: Both lanes heading out of Wilmington will be closed.
- May 23: Repairs are scheduled to be complete.
NCDOT Division 3 Engineer Chad Kimes said there are financial incentives for the contractor and supplier to meet deadlines or finish early, and consequences if they are late.
On the heels of the presentation of that timeline, stakeholders from the Wilmington City Council, New Hanover County and Brunswick County commissions, the Town of Leland, and the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) convened to discuss the communications plan moving forward, and how stakeholders could help facilitate five months of traffic disruptions in the Cape Fear community.
Public officials like Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo criticized NCDOT for its limited communications strategy until this point.
“That should have started, in my opinion, much earlier, because the level of planning and preparation we have to do is immense,” he said. “But we're not here to focus on the past. We're here to focus on the future, and are working together to help this community navigate challenges ahead.”
“We have never before experienced such a significant disruption to traffic patterns of ability in this community for this duration,” Saffo said. “This bridge carries an average of 65,000 cars per day. It is a major point of access into and out of New Hanover County and the city of Wilmington. Restricting that point of access will divert a high volume of traffic along alternate routes throughout our community and region.”
Saffo also announced the establishment of an Incident Command Center at the new Wilmington City Hall. The building has cameras on the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge already, so it will facilitate the management of real-time traffic conditions. The city invited NCDOT staff to co-locate in the command center for the duration of this project.
“City traffic experts are developing plans to maximize vehicle flows throughout the city during the bridge closure,” he added.
New Hanover County Emergency Manager Steven Still said his team is well prepared to support the community throughout the repair timeline.
“We have a well-established, frequently exercised methodology that we apply,” he said, pointing to examples like concerts, triathlons, and hurricanes as similar disruptions the county is prepared for. He said staff from many stakeholders are coordinating to prepare.
Residents can certainly expect significant traffic disruptions, but Kimes said navigation apps like Google Maps, Waze, or Apple Maps will have updated traffic data throughout the closure, giving residents alternate routes and accurate information on travel times.
Public officials aired many suggestions for the first time to staff, ranging from modifications on the Port’s scheduled arrivals to suggesting police officers be placed at major intersections around Wilmington to monitor traffic. Kimes told officials that NCDOT is eager to hear suggestions to help facilitate the traffic patterns. Additionally, NCDOT will put in place certain traffic calming measures and new traffic controls, like turn lanes, to manage the heavier traffic load on certain streets. Kimes said these will be temporary measures, unless any are discovered that will be beneficial on a more permanent basis.
An average of 32,000 cars travel into New Hanover County for work each day, and many will be diverted to alternate routes that already experience congestion at peak travel times.
New Hanover County Commissioner Dane Scalise said, “there are a tremendous number of people that are going to have their lives disrupted, that they are going to have to leave their house one hour earlier, maybe more, I don't know, than they were otherwise leaving.”
The WMPO staff are working with large local employers to suggest carpooling, telecommuting, and other strategies to ease traffic at peak demand times. The Go Coast program helps initiate workplaces into these alternate strategies.
While there are no announcements yet about shuttles, changes to public transportation, or park and rides, Wave spokesperson Brianna D’Itri told WHQR that RideMICRO will be available in Brunswick County throughout the closure, and the transit system is “preparing to provide additional transit education and travel training so people feel confident taking transit.”
Detailed service information will be released prior to the full inbound closure at the end of January.