By Donald Wittkowski
The Townsends Inlet Bridge connecting Sea Isle City with Avalon will remain closed through Memorial Day weekend while emergency structural repairs continue on the nearly 80-year-old span along the Ocean Drive.
Cape May County, the bridge owner, had originally planned to reopen the span in time for the holiday push, the traditional start of the summer tourism season at the Jersey Shore, but complications with the repair work will keep it closed indefinitely, officials said Friday.
“Unfortunately, we were not in a position to reopen the bridge to traffic for the Memorial Day Weekend,” County Engineer Dale Foster said in an email. “All involved are working diligently to open the bridge to traffic as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the working conditions at the site make it difficult to anticipate when the bridge will be in a position to once again carry traffic.”
As long as the bridge remains closed, motorists will have to detour miles out of their way to the Garden State Parkway or Route 9 to travel between Sea Isle and Avalon.
The bridge was shut down on April 3 after structural cracks and severe deterioration were found in the support piles during an underwater inspection. The most recent closing added to a series of shutdowns suffered by the antiquated bridge over the years.
Construction crews have begun the process of reinforcing the bridge with new steel. The underwater work and swift tidal currents have made the repairs on one of the support piers “a very challenging undertaking,” causing the delays in getting the bridge reopened, the county said.
“The conditions at Townsends Inlet make working on this needed repair very difficult,” the county said in a statement Friday.
South State, the county’s bridge contractor, is working 12-hour shifts on weekdays and 8-hour shifts on Saturdays, weather permitting, to complete the repairs.
“Because of the difficult working conditions, it is uncertain as to when the bridge can be open to traffic,” the county said. “In the meantime, pedestrians, fishermen and bicyclists can use the bridge. However, during certain construction operations, no one is permitted in the work zone.”
Repair work is being done on a cluster of three support piles originally installed in 1962 to reinforce the bridge after a monster storm pummeled the Jersey Shore that year and caused the bottom of Townsends Inlet to drop. The piles are part of a pier on the bridge’s bay side near Avalon.
“The proposed repair consists of installing a new cluster of three, 160-foot-long, 24-inch-diameter pipe piles on the bay end of (the pier),” the county said. “This new cluster of piles is to be bolted into the existing concrete pier cap. Due to the compromised strength of the existing pier to support loads, all work needs to be performed from floating equipment placed in the inlet.”
The Townsends Inlet Bridge is 77 years old and there is no money to pay the estimated $75 million to $100 million cost to build a replacement. It is part of a network of aging bridges along the Ocean Drive seashore route operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission.
The commission’s bridges include the Townsends Inlet Bridge, the Middle Thorofare Bridge, the Grassy Sound Bridge, the Corsons Inlet Bridge and the Ocean City-Longport Bridge. Only the Ocean City-Longport Bridge is a modern span. The Townsends Inlet, Middle Thorofare and Grassy Sound bridges were built in the 1930s, while the Corsons Inlet Bridge is just a few years younger.
Funding for the emergency repair work to the Townsends Inlet Bridge will come from money that had previously been approved for a series of upgrades on county-owned bridges. The county bridge program included maintenance work on the Townsends Inlet Bridge that had been scheduled for the winter of 2017-2018.