Cape Fear Skyway Bridge

The Cape Fear Skyway is likely to be a cable-stayed bridge, like the Cooper River Bridge in Charleston, S.C., and will rise 165 feet to 187 feet above the Cape Fear River south of the Port of Wilmington, according to the latest plans of the N.C. Turnpike Authority.

The latest cost estimate – $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion – is higher than the previous estimate of about $1 billion.

But officials at the Turnpike Authority still say it could open to cars and trucks in 2017.

The Skyway vision is a little clearer following a presentation Wednesday by Turnpike Authority consultants URS Corp. at the authority’s regular meeting in the state capital. Late this summer or fall, project planners are expected to visit the Wilmington area for public input on the need for a new bridge across the river and preliminary discussions about potential routes.

The proposed 9.5-mile toll road and bridge over the Cape Fear likely would connect U.S. 17 in Brunswick County to the intersection of Carolina Beach Road and Independence Boulevard in Wilmington. The precise route will be determined later in the planning process.

It is intended to relieve congestion on the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and offer an alternative for commuters between New Hanover and burgeoning Brunswick counties.

It will likely be built as a cable-stayed bridge, like the Cooper River Bridge in Charleston or the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay, planners said Wednesday.

“It looks like that’s what’s going to accomplish both the vertical and horizontal needs,” said Jennifer Harris, a Turnpike Authority staff engineer.

It would hover somewhere between 165 feet and 187 feet above the river. In comparison, the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is about 65 feet above the water.

Earlier proposals called for a 225-foot high-rise bridge, but consultants said their research indicated that a lower bridge might be able to accommodate the cargo and cruise ships that would use the river in the future.

“It’s out there for comment at this point in time,” said David Griffin of URS Corp. in Morrisville. “We’re looking for justification one way or another.”

Put simply, a cable-stayed bridge consists of towers, with connected cables that support the bridge deck.

The next step for Skyway planners is a “purpose and need” statement to outline existing transportation issues in the Cape Fear region, such as highway congestion, evacuation needs and other deficiencies. That will be followed by the development of alternatives to solving the problems.

URS Corp. also identified three possible routes across the Cape Fear River from U.S. 421 in New Hanover County to U.S. 133 in Brunswick County, the easternmost stretch of the Skyway.

Is there a preferred route?

“We’re not even close to even contemplating that,” Harris said.

The Raleigh-based Turnpike Authority proposes to build the Skyway as one of a handful of toll road projects across the state.

During the past three years, it has spent about $3.2 million on Skyway planning and is budgeting about $2.5 million for the coming fiscal year, an authority spokesman said.

The authority’s Skyway schedule calls for a draft environmental impact statement in March 2011, a final environmental impact statement in March 2010 and awarding a construction contract in January 2013.

Closer to home, transportation planners are working on a plan to protect the potential Skyway route from development on both sides of the river. That would prevent any property owner in the Skyway’s path from immediately developing the property. In January 2006, planners filed a map prohibiting owners of land near the intersection of Carolina Beach Road and Independence Boulevard from developing a proposed apartment complex there. Transportation officials are now contemplating buying that property.

Lanny Wilson, vice chairman of the Turnpike Authority, said the bridge study highlighted Wednesday shows a lot of planning is being done behind the scenes on the Skyway.

“For people to think there’s nothing going on, they’re mistaken,” Wilson said.