Op-ed by Wilmington City Council Luke Waddell
As a boy born and raised in southeastern North Carolina, I recall often listening intently to the conversations of grownups as they discussed the general issues of the day. On many occasions the conversations carried the general feeling, albeit a frustrated one, that compared to other areas of the state, southeastern North Carolinian’s get the short end of the stick. A common refrain was that we consistently watch as our tax dollars are spent on projects in Raleigh and Charlotte while we have to make do with what is left.
A few decades later, I am now an appointed member of the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) and am witnessing first-hand the regional inequity I heard discussed growing up. Typically, the WMPO is an anodyne body offering recommendations and guidance to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) regarding various transportation projects in the Cape Fear Region. However, with this discussion, the WMPO has been thrust into one of the greatest funding injustices our region has ever seen – an effort by the state to place the cost of replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge (CFMB) onto the backs of local residents, via tolling.
The justification from NCDOT is that there is not enough money to fund it via a traditional method and the replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge – our region’s most critical piece of infrastructure — does not score high enough to compete for state funds, especially around faster-growing regions like Raleigh and Charlotte.
Tolling the Cape Fear Memorial bridge would make it the first project in the history of the state to replace an existing roadway utilizing a toll. It is currently unlawful to replace existing infrastructure with a toll. The first step to change the law, per state statute, requires NCDOT to obtain permission from the WMPO to vote in favor of imposing a toll on ourselves. That vote is scheduled to take place at the end of this month.
The narrative thus far from NCDOT and supporters of tolling boils down to this – “You need a new bridge, the state can’t afford to build one for you and the only way you’re getting one is if you agree to a toll. It’s ok, it will only be a dollar or two. Don’t be ignorant, consider it an investment.”
Well, North Carolinians, including those in the Cape Fear region, already pay the highest gas tax in the Southeast and the 7th highest gas tax in the country. These revenues, and the funds collected from highway use taxes and DMV fees, are meant to support the maintenance, operation and replacement of existing infrastructure. The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is existing infrastructure and the funding of its replacement should have been properly accounted for over the last half century of its existence. The initiative underway to force the issue of tolling is designed to shift the burden of the state’s budgetary shortfall onto the citizens of the Cape Fear region, who have already been taxed for it.
The proposed toll is not only a double tax on the people of our region, but a regressive tax. For daily commuters already stretched thin via inflation, tax increases, gas prices, etc. these dollars add up fast. The people of the Cape Fear region pay the very same taxes as every other North Carolinian — we should expect that when our infrastructure needs to be replaced that the state lives up to its responsibility as it does with every other area in the state.
NCDOT’s upcoming ‘Cape Fear Memorial Bridge Preservation Project’ will result in significant lane closures for the beginning half of this year. With these closures, the pressure on the WMPO to accept a toll will surely increase. I urge my colleagues and our community to stay clear-minded against the call to “explore all options to include a toll,” because a vote to “explore all options” is just political speak for voting for a toll bridge. Noise and fear mongering are strategies meant to distract us so the state can reach into our wallets to cover a bill which we’ve already paid.
Let us all remember that the state is bound by law to replace its existing infrastructure. Voting to impose a toll on ourselves now would be a remarkably shortsighted reaction to what will admittedly be a painful inconvenience of the upcoming bridge detours. However, NCDOT’s “Preservation Project” is making long-lasting repairs to prolong the useful life of the current bridge. These long-lasting repairs provide the ideal time for the WMPO to remove a local toll as a potential solution to the state’s funding problem so it can plan accordingly for a future replacement bridge. NCDOT has resolved funding challenges for transportation projects before and I am confident it can do so again.
For us to absolve the state of its responsibility at the direct and disproportionate expense of our local citizens is, simply, a bridge too far.
Luke A. Waddell, Sr.
Member, Wilmington City Council
Vice-Chairman, Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization