By Donald Wittkowski
There was no ribbon-cutting ceremony or fanfare of any kind, but Sea Isle City motorists nonetheless have reason to celebrate with the opening Tuesday of the first part of an elevated roadway protected from the barrier island’s notorious flooding.
The newly completed section of Sea Isle Boulevard is 4.5 feet higher than the old low-lying road, giving motorists a safer evacuation route when severe storms hit the Jersey Shore. Sea Isle Boulevard, also known locally as the “causeway,” is the main artery in and out of town.
The next part of the $12.7 million construction project calls for raising the old low-lying lanes on the opposite side of the road by 4.5 feet, too. Completion of that phase is scheduled before the summer of 2019.
“When completed, the elevated causeway will give motorists the ability to easily get in and out of Sea Isle City – even during extreme flooding. This will give us all peace of mind whenever flooding is a concern,” city spokeswoman Katherine Custer said.
The road’s reconstruction will raise it above the 100-year flood level. The new road will not only be higher, but will be wider than the cramped lanes on the old part of the boulevard. During peak travel times in the busy summer tourism season, it is not uncommon for traffic to get backed up heading into town.
Although a modern roadway protected from flooding is being created, the multiyear construction project has tested the patience of motorists, elected officials and the business community. However, the transition Tuesday to the newly built elevated section on the north side of the road represents a major milestone.
“We are glad that the transition has occurred and the project is continuing. We look forward to the completion of the entire causeway project prior to the summer of 2019,” said George Savastano, the city’s business administrator.
Christopher Glancey, president of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization, said the upgraded roadway should help to boost business for local merchants by improving the flow of tourist traffic.
“Anything that makes it easier for people to get on and off the island will benefit the business community and everyone else in town,” Glancey said. “The goal is to make it easier for people to get to your business, and this road does that.”
Cape May County, which oversees the project, is rebuilding a 1.7-mile stretch of the boulevard from the Garden State Parkway’s Exit 17 entrance ramp to the bridge entering Sea Isle. The project includes a new ramp that connects the boulevard with the northbound lanes of the parkway.
The new elevated section opened at 5 a.m. Tuesday. The higher road, like the old boulevard, is only one lane in each direction, but motorists are no longer tightly squeezed between concrete construction barriers.
Aesthetically, the higher road gives motorists sweeping views of the marshlands surrounding Sea Isle. The towering smokestack of the B.L. England power station in Marmora is visible about 10 miles away.
The multifaceted project began in 2014 and is being done in stages to accommodate the crush of summertime tourist traffic as well as the nesting season for the migratory osprey shorebirds. When they return next summer, Sea Isle’s tourists will discover there is a new road to take them into town.
Already, the low-lying lanes on the south side of the road have been closed to traffic. Contractors will tear up the existing asphalt and then add huge mounds of dirt to the south side, which will sit there for about a year. The process, known as “surcharging,” allows the dirt to become compact enough for the next part of the elevated boulevard to be built on top of it.
The entire project is scheduled to wrap up in June 2020. After the new roadway is completed in 2019, environmental work will be done to restore wetlands disturbed by the boulevard’s reconstruction.
Work will also include the installation of new fencing to prevent diamondback terrapins from venturing onto the road and being crushed by traffic. The slow-moving turtles leave their marshlands habitat in the summer, crossing over the boulevard to find sandy nesting areas for their eggs. Many of them are run over by cars, though.