With toll option, Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement ranks higher on NCDOT list

Jun 6, 2024 • 3 min. read | By Emma Dill

With the option of tolling in play, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement ranked among the top 10 highest-scored projects in the latest ranking from the N.C. Department of Transportation.

A draft of the Department of Transportation’s Prioritization 7.0 ranked the tolled replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge at No. 9 overall while the untolled option ranked No. 211 statewide. The tolled project could receive $85 million from the NCDOT while the untolled option would remain unfunded. The bridge is expected to cost upwards of $437 million.

The latest results, which evaluate projects in the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) between 2026 and 2035, were presented to the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) board last week.

In late January, the WMPO board voted 8-5 to support asking state transportation officials to consider a tolled option as local leaders worked to find funding for the replacement of the aging bridge. 

Adding in the possibility of a tolled option would help increase the project’s prioritization, proponents, including some in the business community, said at the time. Others voiced concern about even considering the option of a toll, citing the regressive impacts it could have on area residents.

In July 2021, the WMPO board voted down a proposal for a public-private tolled bridge replacement option, citing concerns with the cost of tolls and the impact on traffic on the Isabel Holmes Bridge. The next year the board adopted a resolution urging transportation leaders to consider all possible options, including tolls and previous proposals, to fund a bridge replacement.

Following the latest scoring announcement, Wilmington Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Natalie English issued a statement on behalf of the chamber board, expressing appreciation for leadership in the WMPO and NCDOT.

“Last week’s release of the draft Prioritization 7.0 reiterates what NCDOT leaders have told us for years,” she stated. “A replacement to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge only scores for funding in the prioritization formula if a toll is included. And, without a toll, the bridge goes unfunded.”

English encouraged local leaders to continue working to identify additional grants and other funding to help pay for the bridge’s replacement so that they won’t have to rely on tolls to make up the funding gaps. 

“This draft of Prioritization 7.0 is a big win for the Cape Fear region with two of our projects in the top 10 statewide list which will transform our entire region,” English added. “I applaud our local and state leaders for their boldness in keeping our transportation infrastructure needs high on the radar.”

In addition to the bridge replacement, another top-ranked project aims to update traffic signals along U.S. 17 in Hampstead between Washington Acres Road and Vista Lane. It could receive more than $1 million from the state.

Transportation officials have known for years that the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge needs to be replaced. The bridge was constructed in 1969 and is considered “functionally obsolete.” More than 60,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day, and by 2045, it's expected to carry an estimated 81,900 each day between New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

NCDOT recently completed a months-long preservation project that replaced the bridge’s aging stringers or steel support beams under its driving deck. The repairs forced the bridge to close to traffic, shutting down first the eastbound lanes and then the westbound lanes. The bridge fully reopened ahead of schedule in early May.