The antiquated Townsends Inlet Bridge has a history of shutdowns and is now being studied for possible replacement.

By Donald Wittkowski

The cost for building a new Townsends Inlet Bridge to connect Sea Isle City and Avalon could reach as high as $160 million, according to a new study that examines a series of options for replacing or rehabilitating the nearly 80-year-old span.

In addition, motorists would have to endure detours that might last as long as five years if a new bridge is built, the engineering study says.

The study will be discussed during the board meeting Thursday of the Cape May County Bridge Commission, the agency that operates the Townsends Inlet Bridge and four other spans that connect the barrier island communities of Cape May County.

Karen Coughlin, the commission’s executive director, said in an interview Wednesday that the study considers seven options for either rehabilitating or replacing the Townsends Inlet Bridge.

“All of them, obviously, have different durations and different costs,” she said of the amount of time and money needed for each option.

Although the study is seen as a crucial first step that could possibility lead to construction of a new bridge, it would still take years to plan, design and build the project, Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster said in a September interview.

The Townsends Inlet Bridge, built in 1939, has been shut down a number of times in recent years for repairs, upkeep and 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.

Amid growing frustration from Sea Isle and Avalon officials about the creaky structure, the bridge commission authorized engineering consultant Greenman-Pedersen Inc. to conduct a study that includes a “step by step” process for possibly rehabilitating the existing bridge or building a new one.

Previously, county officials had estimated it would cost between $50 million and $100 million for a new bridge. However, the Greenman-Pedersen study found that the price tag could be as high as $160 million, Coughlin said.

Lower-cost options are also described in the study, including a $15 million to $20 million rehabilitation project to wring more years out of the aging structure.

Currently, there is no money to pay for a new bridge. The county would look to the state and federal governments to help finance the project.

The bridge toll is $1.50 for trips between Sea Isle City and Avalon.

Foster has said a new bridge would be cheaper to build and take less time if it could follow the same alignment as the existing span. Any new alignment would add to the permitting process, perhaps taking 18 months to three years to complete that phase of the project alone, he noted.

Motorists would face traffic restrictions or lengthy detours during the bridge’s rehabilitation or replacement. The study outlines a number of possible scenarios for handling traffic, including intermittent lane closures, seasonal detours or detours that could last for up to five years, Coughlin said.

The Townsends Inlet Bridge is a critical link along the Ocean Drive, a scenic route popular with tourists that connects the seashore towns of Cape May County. During the bridge’s three-month closure this year for emergency repairs, motorists had to detour miles out of their way to the Garden State Parkway or Route 9 to travel between Sea Isle and Avalon.

The cost of the emergency repairs was estimated at $2 million. Now that those repairs have been completed, the county is planning to move ahead with previously scheduled maintenance upgrades on the bridge.

As part of the improvements, a nearly $2.7 million overhaul will replace the old railings that line both sides of the span.

New steel railings would protect both the motor vehicle traffic and pedestrians using the bridge. They would replace old, corroded railings that don’t meet modern safety standards. Some of the old railings date to the bridge’s original construction in 1939.

Barring any environmental restrictions to protect migratory birds, the railing project is expected to be completed by June 2018.

However, work would be halted for months during the nesting season of piping plovers, a migratory bird classified by New Jersey as an endangered species, if they are spotted on the beaches of Sea Isle, Foster said. Under that scenario, construction would resume after the summer nesting season and be completed by the end of 2018.

During the maintenance work, the bridge will be reduced to a single, alternating lane of traffic. Two temporary traffic signals will be installed on the bridge to control the flow of vehicles. Motorists will encounter delays, but the red lights will be timed to be no longer than 3 minutes, Foster said.

Despite the inconveniences to motorists caused by the project, there will a benefit. Bridge tolls will not be collected during construction, saving motorists the $1.50 fare they normally pay to cross the span, Foster said.