What's being done to fix the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge causeway traffic congestion?

·4 min read
Traffic travels into Wilmington along HWY 17 from Brunswick County Wed. Jan. 6, 2022. [KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS]
Traffic travels into Wilmington along HWY 17 from Brunswick County Wed. Jan. 6, 2022. [KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS]

When Paige Williamson moved to Leland nearly 20 years ago, even then people were talking about the region's growth and the need for a new bridge into Wilmington.

"Building a new bridge is the only way to actually help the problem," she said. "It's the only way and we've known that for years now."

Williamson is one of several Brunswick County residents who say they've seen traffic into Wilmington get worse in recent years. And whether it's road widening, building a new bridge, or slowing down development, 20 years later, Leland residents are still looking for solutions.

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According to NCDOT public relations officer Andrew Barksdale, while there are no programmed plans for a new bridge across the Cape Fear or a road widening, there is a project coming up designed to help.

The project set for the U.S. 17/U.S. 421 intersection would replace traffic signals with free flowing "trumpet style" interchanges in all directions, which would reduce congestion and improve travel time in that area. The project would be put out for bidding in May 2028 and is estimated to cost $36 million.

Traffic travels into Wilmington along HWY 17 from Brunswick County Wed. Jan. 5, 2022. [KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS]
Traffic travels into Wilmington along HWY 17 from Brunswick County Wed. Jan. 5, 2022. [KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS]

Barksdale said the causeway was last widened in 2017, with an extra lane in each direction bringing U.S. 17/74/76 from four to six lanes.

NCDOT traffic counts following completion of that project showed average annual daily trips reduced 5% the following year. Congestion data from the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization showed that traffic just west of the causeway reduced from 106,500 daily trips in August 2017 to 102,350 daily trips in December 2019.

According to local residents, however, traffic has only gotten worse with an influx of more developments and more people.

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Cory Schreiver said every morning as she approaches the bridge into Wilmington, her commute comes to a near standstill pace.

"As long as every development that comes across Brunswick County is approved, with no traffic impacts of course, then the traffic and build up is going to just continue," Schreiver said.

Traffic travels into Wilmington along HWY 17 from Brunswick County Wed. Jan. 5, 2022. [KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS]
Traffic travels into Wilmington along HWY 17 from Brunswick County Wed. Jan. 5, 2022. [KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS]

The Wilmington Area Metropolitan Planning Organization measures and evaluates congestion data in corridors throughout its jurisdiction in its biennial congestion management plan data report.

According to data from its 2020 report, the congestion on the causeway isn't as bad as many other areas of Wilmington, but is notably inconsistent.

The report found when aggregating all traffic performance metrics, the corridor that includes the causeway scored the fifth best out of all 30 corridors. However it received the worst possible score when it comes to morning travel time reliability.

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The 2022 congestion management report is being worked on now, and may reflect the increased congestion that residents belienew developments have brought.

However, according to Leland planning director Ben Andrea, as the town grows with more developments, it could actually help alleviate traffic. The town adopted their Leland 2045 plan last year, which aims to concentrate growth into "community nodes" along major highways rather than sprawling from a central downtown.

As the town grows not only will it alleviate the need for people to travel into Wilmington, according to Andrea, with more businesses and housing complexes move into the area, careful land use planning could create more walkable and bike-able communities

Traffic travels into Wilmington along HWY 17 from Brunswick County Wed. Jan. 6, 2022. [KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS]
Traffic travels into Wilmington along HWY 17 from Brunswick County Wed. Jan. 6, 2022. [KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS]

"Getting over this hump of the historical way of isolating different land uses is one way that we can build more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly communities," he said. "That is going to contribute to people being able to get to their job or get to the goods and services that they need without having to get into their car."

Andrea said more nodal development could also build a customer base to support more transit options.

"I think there are many examples across the country that would say that we can't widen our way out of congestion, so we need to be looking at alternatives to address traffic congestion," he said.

Traffic travels into Wilmington along HWY 17 from Brunswick County Wed. Jan. 5, 2022. [KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS]
Traffic travels into Wilmington along HWY 17 from Brunswick County Wed. Jan. 5, 2022. [KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS]

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Although funding for road widening and a new bridge aren't in NCDOT's current plans, according to WMPO deputy director Abby Lorenzo, both of those projects are still a high priority for the organization.

Lorenzo said three projects aimed at relieving gridlock on the causeway are included in the WMPO's metropolitan transportation plan, including a six-lane replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, a widening of the causeway from six to eight lanes, and the Cape Fear Crossing, a new bridge south of the current one.

Those, along with other projects, will be scored and prioritized for state funding in their 20234/24 strategic prioritization process.

Reporter John Orona can be reached at 910-343-2327 or jorona@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Cape Fear Memorial Bridge causeway traffic being addressed

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