By Donald Wittkowski
A consulting firm studying the replacement or rehabilitation of the creaky Townsends Inlet Bridge is recommending construction of an entirely new bridge instead of trying to save the existing structure, a top official said.
Greenman-Pedersen Inc., an engineering company, presented the Cape May County Bridge Commission in October with seven options for either renovating or replacing the nearly 80-year-old bridge that connects Sea Isle City and Avalon.
Karen Coughlin, the commission’s executive director, said Greenman-Pedersen is now recommending construction of a new bridge at a cost of $175 million. Currently, Cape May County does not have the money to build a new bridge, but has been studying a replacement plan for the antiquated span.
Under the plan proposed by Greenman-Pedersen, traffic traveling between Sea Isle and Avalon would continue to use the existing bridge while the new one would be built, dramatically cutting down on the amount of time for detours during construction. Coughlin said detours would last an estimated six months under this option.
Virtually all of the old bridge would be demolished once the new one is built under the plan recommended by Greenman-Pedersen. Part of the existing bridge on the Avalon side would be saved as a fishing pier, Coughlin said.
All of the alternatives studied by Greenman-Pedersen would require traffic restrictions or lengthy detours during the bridge’s rehabilitation or replacement. The worst-case scenario would call for detours lasting up to five years during construction of a new bridge.
The longest detours would occur if the existing Townsends Inlet Bridge was demolished first, followed by construction of a new span that would follow the same alignment as the old bridge, according to the consulting report by Greenman-Pedersen.
Other options would take the alignment of a new bridge closer to the ocean or bay. Under those plans, traffic could continue using the old bridge while a new one is built. The plan recommended by Greenman-Pedersen, known as “Alternative 6” in its consulting report, would align the new bridge closer to the bay side of Townsends Inlet, Coughlin said.
Each of the seven alternatives outlined in the report would come with different costs and different regulatory requirements because of their various environmental impacts. The costs range from $15 million to $20 million to rehabilitate the bridge to between $105 million and $175 million for a new bridge.
Preliminary work, such as completing the designs and obtaining the regulatory permits, might take as long as three years. Construction of a new bridge would add another three to five years, according to Greenman-Pedersen.
Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio and members of City Council have said they favor building a new bridge. Desiderio is also a Cape May County freeholder, giving him even more influence in the fate of the Townsends Inlet Bridge.
The Townsends Inlet Bridge is part of a network of five bridges operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission along the Ocean Drive, a scenic seashore route that connects the barrier islands in Cape May County.
The commission’s other bridges include the Ocean City-Longport Bridge, the Middle Thorofare Bridge, the Grassy Sound Bridge and the Corsons Inlet Bridge. Only the Ocean City-Longport Bridge is modern. The others date to the 1930s or 1940s.
Built in 1939 during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, the Townsends Inlet Bridge has been plagued by a series of shutdowns over the past five years for repairs, maintenance work or related road construction.
Most recently, it was closed from April to June for emergency repairs after structural cracks and deterioration were discovered in its support piles during an underwater inspection.
Responding to strenuous complaints about the shutdowns from elected officials and business leaders in both Sea Isle and Avalon, the county authorized Greenman-Pedersen to perform a study for a “step by step” process to renovate or replace the structure.
Coughlin explained that designs for a replacement bridge could begin as soon as this year, once the county formally decides on which option it prefers.
“They are hoping to move forward with designs in 2018,” she said in an interview Friday.
More problematic is the funding for a new bridge. The bridge commission is already discussing plans to replace its oldest span, the Middle Thorofare Bridge linking Cape May and Wildwood Crest. The county is seeking federal funding for the Middle Thorofare Bridge project, which could complicate efforts to replace the Townsends Inlet Bridge.
During a presentation on the Townsends Inlet Bridge in October, Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster said there is only limited federal funding available for bridge projects. He also noted that the county would essentially be “competing against ourselves” if it seeks federal funding to replace both the Middle Thorofare and Townsends Inlet bridges.
For now, the best hope appears to be a combination of federal, state and county funding. Toll revenue collected by the Cape May County Bridge Commission on its five bridges wouldn’t be nearly enough to pay for the bridge-replacement projects.
Meanwhile, the county already has plans to rehabilitate the Townsends Inlet Bridge this year, including the replacement of seven of its deteriorating spans on the Avalon side. The project will cost between $15 million and $20 million and take 12 months to complete.
The replacement of the seven spans will allow the county to wring more use out of the bridge while longer-range plans are discussed to either renovate the structure or build a new one. The bridge’s rehabilitation could extend the bridge’s life by 25 years, while a new bridge would last an estimated 100 years, according to Greenman-Pedersen.
Desiderio has described the renovation plan as simply a “Band-Aid” solution that would not address the overarching concerns about the bridge’s age and deteriorated condition.
If a new bridge is built, the seven new spans on the Avalon side of the existing bridge would be preserved as a fishing pier. The rest of the old Townsends Inlet Bridge, though, would be demolished.