Last night I saw cascading embers swirling in the winter wind, falling 70 feet from the aged green trusses of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge into the silent river below. It was beautiful, seen from a distance, but up close I can imagine a different scene: a bundled-up worker with a grinding wheel, blasting away at the layers of rust which arise when steel is exposed to salt air since the time of President Johnson. As someone who has spent enough time on sailing ships with steel fittings, I know there comes a point when chipping and painting just is not enough.
The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge has been closed for maintenance throughout the past few months. Presumably, the increased wear and tear due to the large influx of population Wilmington has seen in the last decade has something to do with it, especially in areas like Leland grow swollen with people who, after living their lives in the northeast, retire to Florida, realize they are too far from the grandkids, and still seeking lower property taxes and a moderate climate, move to Waterford or Brunswick Forest (the local colloquialism for such folks is “halfback”, a word which, although it sounds more than a little derogatory, really isn’t any worse than Yankee). Anyone who has lived in Wilmington for the past decade can see this phenomenon plainly, and can imagine the increased stress it puts on our bridge.
America’s tired infrastructure is a subject not often discussed, but perhaps it should be. Per a Business Insider article from last year, our country got an overall “D” on our Infrastructure Report Card, published every four years by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Our bridges, nationwide, got a C+; of the 614,387 bridges across America, more than 200,000 are over 50 years old (ours hits the half-century mark in 2019) and about 56,000 are deemed “structurally deficient.” The ASCE estimates $123 billion is needed to repair our country’s bridges. The group also estimated America needs to spend $4.5 trillion by 2025 to improve our roads, schools, dams and airports.
Last month I got a letter in the mail from the DOT (addressed, lovingly, to “Postal Customer”), which described updates to the “Cape Fear Crossing”—a proposed new 9.5 mile road and bridge over the Cape Fear River to connect US 17 and 140 in Brunswick County to 421 near the Port of Wilmington in NHC. According to the DOT, the project would alleviate congestion on the CFM Bridge (and, presumably Isabelle Holmes), and would serve as additional evacuation route for hurricanes.
As of press, much remains unknown, such as the start and completion dates for the project and where the bridge would actually be placed; they have, however, hashed out a timeline. Public meetings on the project will be held in the spring (DOT didn’t respond by press the exact dates), and a draft environmental impact statement will be issued by this winter. A decision on where the bridge will be placed can be expected by the summer of 2020. The estimated cost of the project is projected around $1 billion.
The process the DOT will use to plan for building the bridge goes as thus: They are currently developing engineering designs for six options (referred to as “alternatives), and are studying how each will interact with existing roads and the natural environment. This information will be used to write the draft environmental impact statement, which will be used to “help determine the Preferred Alternative”—or the option the DOT thinks is best, based on all factors involved. Then there will be a period of public comment and review by local, state, and federal agencies, after which the final Environmental Impact Statement will be released.
Lastly, the DOT will make a Record of Decision to turn the Preferred Alternative into “Selected Alternative,” and then the bridge will be built. Of course, funding must be secured; costs of the planning and research have already been approved by the DOT. Estimated project completion will be five years.
The project has been in the works for quite a while. Called “Cape Fear Skyway” in earlier iterations, it was supposed to be part of the “140 Loop,” a sort of Wilmington Beltway. There are plans on the DOT’s website dating back to 2006 (which hilariously had construction beginning in 2010…), and a presentation to the Wilmington Chamber from 2010 that featured an illustration superimposed over our current bridge of another large structure, reminiscent in design of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge across the Cooper River, connecting Charleston to Mt. Pleasant.
Building a new bridge across the Cape Fear River certainly seems like a better use of taxpayer money than our current president’s preposterous proposal to build a wall along the southern border, an issue currently holding thousands of government employees financially hostage. Hopefully by the time this article is published, the federal government will be open again—but who knows how long 45’s temper tantrum will last? His behavior is far more befitting of a Banana Republic dictator than someone who purportedly swore to uphold the American values of democracy and compromise.
Of the slogans (and insults) I remember hearing shouted in that tumultuous ferment of humanity I witnessed when the then-candidate came and spoke in Wilmington before the election (surely you remember: it was the time he threatened to sick his “second-amendment people” on Hillary Clinton) sticks in my mind most: “Build bridges, not walls.” The sentiment of this simple statement, that we ought to look ahead and create new connections between groups of people rather than build divisive barriers, is something our country could desperately use in such divided times.