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Environmental study for new Cape Fear River bridge

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The Cape Fear Skyway isn’t dead yet — although it will take a lot longer to build if it eventually makes its way through a process that puts it in competition with other state-level projects.

Local transportation officials still hope the state will build a new bridge connecting New Hanover and Brunswick counties south of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, despite it being sidetracked, but it will be many years before drivers get a chance to use it.

Plans for a high-rise skyway many compared to Charleston’s eye-catching Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge slowed because of changes to the transportation planning process. That is not saying it wasn’t needed, but under the new guidelines it didn’t compete as well as other projects, said Karen Collette, division engineer for the Wilmington office of the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Many residents of Brunswick County also expressed opposition to any proposal taking the bridge through established neighborhoods.

There is no money for construction in the 2016-25 state transportation plan, and the term “skyway’ is no longer being used to describe the project. But officials with the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) have not given up on the idea of building another river crossing to handle increased traffic.

With state funding, they are proceeding with an environmental impact study that will narrow down the 12 current alternative routes to just one by winter 2018. It would then have to compete with other major projects statewide for funding. Earlier estimates placed the cost of the bridge at $950 million to $1.1 billion.

“This is probably not a project the state would build without tolling it,” Wilmington City Councilwoman Laura Padgett said during the Sept. 30 meeting of the MPO’s Transportation Committee. She serves as chair of the committee.

Traffic backs up at the 46-year-old lift bridge during high-volume periods, when the bridge is open for boat traffic, and the occasional malfunction. Some relief may come when Interstate 140 is completed all the way to U.S. 17 in Brunswick County. That project is scheduled for completion in 2018.

However, that bridge will run between the northern segments of New Hanover and Brunswick counties, while much of the commuting population lives south of the Memorial Bridge.

John Lennon, the region’s representative on the state transportation board, cautioned that the project still has a number of obstacles to clear.

“We are putting the cart before the horse. Do we want that crossing?” he said.

The question has relevance, as transportation officials had difficulty getting consensus from government officials in the region on where the proposed skyway should go and where there are other alternatives.

Lennon also noted considerable opposition to a public-private partnership to build toll lanes on I-77. Some public officials there have criticized the plan and are demanding changes, even though the contracts have been awarded.

The environmental study on the Cape Fear crossing will cover impact on the community impact as well as the potential effects on natural resources for each of the 12 alternatives.

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