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Brunswick county growth and The Cape Fear Skyway

Imagine the future of southeastern North Carolina with more people, more businesses and more traffic. If you’re already complaining about the congestion on the current road system or if you can easily envision a local skyline with a statuesque bridge, you are on the same path as many North Carolina officials.

Already years in the making, and still years away, transportation officials are working to bring a series of massive road projects to the area as one way to handle this potential growth. One of the most noteworthy is known as the Cape Fear Skyway. This proposed 9.5-mile high-rise bridge would carry vehicles back and forth from Brunswick County to Wilmington and may be one of several toll roads in a state that currently has none.

The Skyway

Currently, both the Isabella Holmes Bridge and the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge transport traffic over the river, and both were built when the Cape Fear area looked much different than it does today. Unlike those bridges, the Skyway would have a higher clearance (of as much as 187 feet) to allow both tankers and cruise ships to pass underneath without disrupting traffic, according to the N.C. Turnpike Authority. The Skyway is envisioned as a cable-stayed bridge that will likely cost $1 billion or more to  build.

The Skyway could open as early as 2017 and be used by commuters for quick access to Wilmington’s busy city streets. Early planning puts the road/ bridge to begin at the intersection between Carolina Beach Road and Independence Boulevard in Wilmington and extend into Brunswick County. On the Brunswick County end, the Skyway would meet with a proposed extension of Interstate 140, a 27-mile bypass for U.S. 17 around Wilmington.

For that reason, construction of the Skyway would depend on completion of this road, says William Sue, chairman of the Brunswick County Commissioners. Interstate 140, also known as the Wilmington Bypass, is scheduled to be built in two sections, one from U.S. 17 to I-40 and another from I-40 to U.S. 421. Before the Skyway could be built, the entire Brunswick County section must be in place. Other concerns involved proposed developments, or the possibility of development, on both sides of the Skyway.

According to Sue, both projects rely on several factors. “It depends,” he says, “if the economy turns around and if building starts again.” But he also sees these roads as important pieces in building a future for the county. “Here, we do have the infrastructure, the land and the climate to bring a lot more folks  in.”

Sue sees the Skyway, and a bevy of other projects, as a way to help make that potential growth a reality. A study conducted by Wilbur Smith Associates for the Skyway project found that Brunswick County could grow by almost 160,000 residents and 90,000 jobs in the next three decades. The study endorsed the Skyway as a way to relieve congestion on the existing Cape Fear River bridges.

With construction slated to begin for the Bypass by 2012, and no funding in the N.C. Department of Transportation budget to complete it, it looked like a postponement for the favored timeline for the project. However, the Bypass is now back on track, thanks to federal stimulus money. In July, reports came out that $26 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and more millions from state and national sources, could allow construction of that critical section of the Bypass to begin in 2010. When finished, the four-lane Bypass would stretch 14.2 miles.

It’s a good omen for the Skyway project, says Steven DeWitt, chief engineer for the Turnpike Authority.

Legislative Obstacles

Of course, funding for the Skyway is another matter. For a project that is estimated to cost more than $1 billion there are significant legislative hurdles.

The Turnpike Authority, established in 2002, was created to tackle some of the state’s transportation issues with toll roads and now operates as a part of the Department of Transportation. It’s estimated that drivers’ tolls would cover only about half of the budget for the Skyway. Early toll costs have been estimated at about $1.75 per vehicle, or 18 cents a mile for the Skyway. It will likely be more than that, though, DeWitt says, because of the cost of the bridge. Even with the tolls, the government must find a way to bridge that monetary gap, as much as $45 million that must be covered from the state’s budget for the next 30 to 40 years to complete the Skyway.

Last year, the General Assembly voted to provide funding for four turnpike projects, including the Triangle Expressway in Wake County. This 18.9-mile toll road from the congested Research Triangle Park west of Raleigh to Holly Springs would extend the Interstate 540 loop into western and southern Wake County. Another project to receive funding is the Monroe Connector highway near Charlotte. The Skyway was not one of the projects to receive funding. “That is one thing we need to find, where the gap funding will come from,” DeWitt says.

A Piece of a Larger Puzzle

Many local planners say the Skyway is important, not only to relieve traffic congestions but also as a larger part of the area’s future. Sue, for example, can look years ahead to improvements at existing ports and perhaps the building of new ones and a road system that will support the trucks and workers those infrastructures could bring.

“It could not only affect our area, it could impact all of North Carolina,” Sue says. “It could provide a quicker link from here to the rest of the state. Nothing moves independently.”

The group NO PORT Southport says the port would adversely affect the health of people and the  environment, while officials with the N.C. Ports Authority are promoting the need for a new $2.3 billion port in the southern part of the state by saying that it will create thousands of new jobs.

The new port terminal is now slated for 600 acres near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. If all goes forward as planned, the terminal would open in 2017, the same year as the current timeline for the Skyway.

Skyway supporters are meeting opposition, though. Leland and Brunswick County politicians have had mixed reactions to the proposed Skyway, the cost and the environmental impact of the construction.

Impact

An environmental impact study of the Skyway is currently underway. The study is a detailed report mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act that must take into account the Skyway’s potential effects on the people, businesses and natural environment in the project area. The Turnpike Authority started this process about two years ago, DeWitt says. Such reports usually take about four years to complete. This report in particular is complicated because of this area’s unique environmental considerations and because of its history.

Early in the process, the Brunswick County Commissioners requested that the Turnpike Authority explore options to minimize the impacts on nearby neighborhoods, such as the Snee Farm and Stoney Creek subdivisions.

“We’re not even close to saying what the impact, if any, will be,” DeWitt says. He says the Turnpike Authority is looking at a wide area in New Hanover and Brunswick counties and proposed routes right now are just that – proposals.

Even the design of the Skyway bridge is only a suggestion. The cable-stay model is an aesthetically  pleasing choice and one that is more economical than others, DeWitt says. But nothing has been absolutely determined yet.

All of the pieces will have to fall into place to make the Skyway a reality, from funding to environmental impact to public support. The Turnpike Authority’s Skyway schedule calls for a draft environmental impact statement in March 2011 as the next step in the process.

“There are a lot of issues to be resolved,” DeWitt says. “The hurdles are sizeable, but it does seem to be a project that is well-supported by the community.”


Fast Facts

• The Cape Fear Skyway is a proposed 9.5-mile toll road, south of Wilmington, including a bridge over the cape Fear river, from U.S. 17 Bypass to U.S. 421.

• Preliminary cost is estimated at about $1 billion. Final costs will be determined during design.

• Free alternate route: Existing U.S. 17, U.S. 74 and U.S. 76. information from the N.C. turnpike authority, www.ncturnpike.org

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