Cape Fear Memorial Bridge in North Carolina considering tolls

July 20, 2021

Tyson Fisher


The North Carolina Department of Transportation is considering tolling the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge to pay for its replacement.

On July 13, the Hanover County Board of Commissioners heard a presentation from NCDOT regarding an unsolicited proposal for a public-private partnership. Specifically, a developer wants to fund the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge with tolls.

North Carolina has been looking to replace the current Cape Fear Memorial Bridge for several years now. Built in 1969, major rehabilitation is required every 10 or 20 years, depending on the span. The last rehab occurred in 2019 and cost $15 million. Currently, the four-lane bridge carries about 60,000 vehicles each day. By 2045, NCDOT expects that number to climb to about 82,000 vehicles per day.

NCDOT has conducted a feasibility study to determine replacement options, which include:

  • 65-foot fixed span – $200 million.
  • 135-foot fixed span – $250 million.
  • 65-foot moveable span – $500 million.
  • 65-foot moveable span with rail component – $600 million.

All Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement options include going from four lanes to median-divided six lanes with 12-foot outside shoulders.

According to Chad Kimes, NCDOT Division 3 engineer, potential funding could be in the form of the state’s prioritization process for inclusion in the State Transportation Improvement Program. However, Kimes said a large-scale non-tolled project in the next 10-year program is unlikely.

In November 2020, NCDOT received an unsolicited public-private partnership proposal regarding the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement.

The proposal adopts the 135-foot fixed span option with a multiple-use path. It also includes improvements to the west side interchange (U.S. 17/U.S. 421/U.S. 74) and the downtown interchange at South Front Street.

If NCDOT were to go with the proposal, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement project will be fully funded by the developer. The developer also would assume most responsibilities, including environmental studies, design, public outreach, permitting, construction, demolition, operations and maintenance. The proposal also calls for a five-year schedule under a 50-year tolling duration.

At this point in the process, proposal details are confidential, including potential toll rates. If the state moves forward, NCDOT will initiate a traffic and revenue study to determine an estimated range. Final toll rates will not be available until bids are received.

Commissioner Rob Zapple asked Kimes about the potential to fund the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement with the anticipated infrastructure bill, which is expected to be worth at least $1 trillion. Kimes said NCDOT is watching it closely. If other funds become available, the state can switch its plans accordingly.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr. appeared to be concerned about the proposal.

Barfield mentioned that the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge in the northeast part of the state cost about $260 million and was not funded by tolls. According to Kimes, that bridge was 80% funded with federal dollars. Barfield also was concerned about the unintended consequences on residents and businesses.

In order for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge public-private partnership proposal to move forward, it must get the approval of the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. NCDOT has already given the same presentation to the planning organization’s committees. If the planning organization wants to proceed, the proposal will no longer be confidential as NCDOT begins an open, transparent and competitive bidding process. However, if the planning organization denies the proposal, the entire concept is killed. NCDOT is not taking a stance on the issue.

Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman said she supports moving forward to learn more information. Even if the planning organization decides to hear the proposal in its entirety, it is not obligated to commit to the proposal. The planning organization will discuss the proposal during its July 28 meeting. LL