By Donald Wittkowski
The multiyear reconstruction of the main artery in and out of Sea Isle City will mark a major milestone next week when traffic shifts over to a newly elevated section of roadway.
The new stretch of Sea Isle Boulevard will be 4.5 feet higher than the existing low-lying lanes. It will give motorists a higher and drier evacuation route off the flood-prone barrier island.
Cape May County, which oversees the $12.7 million project, is elevating 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 opening of the new section represents the most significant improvement for motorists during three years of construction. It is scheduled to open on Dec. 5, according to Sea Isle Business Administrator George Savastano.
Savastano gave the latest update on the project during City Council’s meeting Tuesday.
Related to the switchover to the higher side of the road, the northbound entrance ramp to the Garden State Parkway will be closed overnight on Dec. 4 to allow construction crews to build a new tie-in between Exit 17 and the boulevard. The ramp will reopen the following morning, Savastano said.
The new road will not only be higher, but will be wider than the cramped lanes that currently handle traffic in and out of Sea Isle. During peak travel times in the busy summer tourism season, it is not uncommon for traffic to get backed up heading into town.
“When all is said and done, it’s going to be much safer,” Savastano said of the new roadway. “The road was prone to flooding before. It won’t be now.”
The goal of the project is to modernize Sea Isle Boulevard and to raise the roadway above the 100-year flood elevation, the county says.
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 migratory shorebirds.
Although the project will ultimately create a better roadway and evacuation route, the lengthy construction work has been a source of frustration for Sea Isle’s elected officials, business leaders and local residents.
Motorists have had to contend with narrow lanes squeezed between construction barriers during the boulevard’s overhaul.
The switchover to the higher road was originally supposed to happen last year, but was pushed back by construction delays. More delays were caused by environmental restrictions that require construction to come to a halt during the spring and summer months to protect migratory osprey birds that make their nests in the marshlands surrounding the boulevard.
Even more construction delays were encountered this fall. The county had hoped to have the elevated roadway ready for traffic in October. The date was later pushed back to Thanksgiving week, but now the county has rescheduled the opening for Dec. 5.
Currently, work crews are regrading and paving the area around the northbound ramp to the parkway. Weather permitting, they will also be working all day and throughout the night on Dec. 5 to create a new tie-in between the newly elevated roadway and Old Sea Isle Boulevard, where Minmar Marine is located.
There will be intermittent lane closures and alternating lanes of traffic during the switchover, but at no time will Sea Isle Boulevard be completely shut down, according to the Cape May County Department of Public Works.
By no means is this the final part of the boulevard’s reconstruction. Once traffic switches over to the higher side, work will begin to elevate the existing low lanes by 4.5 feet, too.
Huge mounds of dirt will be added to the low side and 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.
According to plans, that phase of the roadway construction is scheduled for completion by the spring of 2019.
In the final phase, environmental work to restore wetlands disturbed by the road construction is scheduled to wrap up in June 2020.
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.