Cape Fear Memorial Bridge Replacement

As we navigate the future of Wilmington’s infrastructure, conversations around the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge have reached a pivotal moment, and our community stands at a crossroads. We urge you to follow along with this important issue, which will have profound effects on the Wilmington National Register Historic District. 

The Historic Wilmington Foundation’s Stance

The debate has long been centered on the proposed height for the new bridge – a towering 135-foot structure designed to accommodate maritime traffic, versus a more modest, economical, and pragmatic 65-foot fixed bridge. The Historic Wilmington Foundation champions the latter option. Here’s why:

  • Impacts on Historic Districts: The construction of a 135-foot fixed bridge poses a threat to all historic buildings in the study area, potentially leading to their demolition or exposing them to indirect adverse impacts such as new traffic patterns, compromised sight-lines that detract from the beauty of our historic setting, and increased noise. A 65-foot fixed bridge fits within the existing footprint of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, and greatly reduces the negative impacts on the Wilmington Historic District.
  • Financial Prudence: The estimated cost of a towering 135-foot fixed bridge soars at $437 million, whereas cost estimates for a 65-foot fixed bridge are consistently $150 million cheaper. The high price tag of the 135′ bridge makes this infrastructure project less competitive for state funding through the State Improvement Transportation Plan (STIP). Now, tolls are being considered to reduce the project’s cost and increase its score, which still does not guarantee timely state funding. A 65-foot fixed bridge could be funded and constructed quicker—and without a toll.
  • Environmental Consideration: A 65-foot fixed bridge stands as the least environmentally damaging, practical alternative. Its construction and presence would ensure minimal impact on the surrounding ecosystems, aligning with our commitment to conservation and sustainable development.
  • False Promises: Advocates for a toll prefer leveling a financial burden on thousands of commuters each day to preserve “what if” dreams of upstream industry. The justification for a 135-foot bridge, primarily to serve the needs of industrial maritime traffic, does not hold up under scrutiny. Historical data and future projections indicate that the vast majority of bridge lifts have catered to pleasure crafts rather than industrial vessels. Industry requiring more than 65-foot vertical clearance upstream from the Port of Wilmington simply does not exist, and its future existence would require more dredging, wetlands destruction, deforestation–and all their negative impacts.

On July 7, 2020, Chad Kimes, Division 3 Engineer for the NC DOT, joined us to share these plans for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement and answer viewers’ questions. Want to see the video recording? CLICK HERE or watch below! To view the slideshow, CLICK HERE.

Feasibility Study

The NC Department of Transportation has recently completed a feasibility study for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge’s replacement, identifying four possibilities for a new crossing. All four options are located just south of the current vertical-lift, four-lane steel bridge, which opened in 1969. They share the same basic layout: six 12-foot lanes (three in each direction) divided by a 22-foot median, and 12-foot outside shoulders. Each option also includes a 15-foot separated path for pedestrians and bicycles. 

Feasibility Study documents:
     1) SUMMARY
     2) MAPS

OPTION 1: Fixed span, 65-foot vertical clearance, $196.6 million
OPTION 2: Fixed span, 135-foot vertical clearance, $245.7 million
OPTION 3: Movable span, 65-foot vertical clearance, $487.7 million
OPTION 4: Movable span, 65-foot vertical clearance and railroad component, $608.7 million
* The rail option is part of Wilmington’s rail realignment plan and would require a partnership between the City, NC DOT and others.

     3) PROJECT INITIATION FORM
     4) SCOPING CHECKLIST

Policy Brief

Executive Summary: The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is deemed functionally obsolete by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) due to increasing repair and maintenance costs. NCDOT identified four express concept bridge options to replace the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. Each option is located in the Wilmington Historic District, requiring determination and mitigation of adverse effects to historic resources under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. HWF intends to serve as a consulting party during the Section 106 review. 

Context: Four express concept bridge options were articulated by NCDOT in 2020 to replace the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. All four options include six vehicular lanes and a separated multi-use path. Option #1 is a fixed structure with a 65’ vertical clearance. Option #2 is a fixed structure with a 135’ vertical clearance. Option #3 is a moveable structure with a 65’ vertical clearance. Option #4 is a moveable structure with a 65’ vertical clearance that includes a railroad component to support the realignment of Wilmington’s CSX rail line.   

All four options are located in the Wilmington Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and expanded in 2003. The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion C for its notable engineering features. These resources are protected under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires determination of the project’s effects on historic resources and measures to avoid or reduce adverse effects. 

Policy Alternatives: Based on current express concepts, Option #1 would have fewer direct and indirect adverse effects to the Wilmington Historic District due to the replacement bridge height and approaches being similar to the current Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. Option #1 is the cheapest cost estimate. NCDOT utilizes cost estimates associated with Option #2 for the State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP), the multi-year capital improvement document which denotes the scheduling and funding of construction projects. The bridge replacement costs are a leading contributor to the project scoring too low for STIP funding.  

The primary weakness of Option #1 is restricting ships, cargo, or equipment requiring an excess of 65’ vertical clearance. From June, 2020, to June, 2023, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge opened 728 times, of which 371 occurrences were due to training and maintenance (50.9%). Of the 350 openings for vessels, 221 were for sailboats, 76 for tugs/barges, and 58 for ships. NCDOT identified one business regularly utilizing ships requiring more than 65’ vertical clearance: Kinder Morgan Terminals LLC. This business was sold to Isambard 53 LLC in June, 2023, with perpetual, restrictive covenants limiting the property’s use to commercial or industrial development, barring storage terminal services related to bulk liquid petroleum/chemicals. This sale leaves the property’s future vertical clearance requirements undetermined. 

The preservation of historic bridges closed to vehicular or train traffic has several examples across the country. Chattanooga, TN, preserved the Walnut Street Bridge as a linear, pedestrian park in 1993 after the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic in 1978. The Walnut Street Bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990 under Criterion A and Criterion C. Cincinnati’s Louisville and Nashville Bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001 under Criterion A and Criterion C and closed to vehicular traffic. The bridge was preserved as a pedestrian park under the ownership and management of The Purple People Bridge Company, a non-profit organization. Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, NY, opened in 2009 as a pedestrian bridge operated by the New York Office of State Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. The railroad bridge was closed in 1974 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 under Criterion A and Criterion C. Click here to read “Historic foundation proposes converting CF Memorial Bridge into pedestrian park,” published in Port City Daily on May 13, 2023. 

Policy Recommendations

  1. Option #1 (fixed structure, 65’ vertical clearance) or Option #3 (moveable structure, 65’ vertical clearance) will have the least adverse effect on the Wilmington Historic District. 
  2. The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places and thus worthy of preservation.