By Donald Wittkowski
Concrete construction barriers and temporary traffic lights have finally been removed from the Townsends Inlet Bridge, giving motorists wait-free trips between Sea Isle City and Avalon just in time for the bustling summer tourism season.
Drivers have had to squeeze through one narrow lane of alternating traffic since last November for a $2.7 million maintenance project that included replacing rusty old steel railings running along both sides of the nearly 80-year-old bridge.
However, work crews removed the barriers and stop lights during the overnight hours Wednesday to restore two-way traffic – in the process, eliminating the delays for motorists while crossing over the span.
Sea Isle officials expressed relief that Cape May County has wrapped up the construction work prior to Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer tourism season. Work is scheduled to resume on the final phase of the maintenance project in the fall.
“Naturally, it’s an inconvenience when you have to use the bridge. It was particularly inconvenient for Sea Isle residents who live in Townsends Inlet and need to travel south to Avalon,” Sea Isle spokeswoman Katherine Custer said of the construction. “But I’m sure everyone in Sea Isle, no matter where they live, and in Avalon, is happy the bridge is now open.”
At one point, the bridge was closed for three weeks in April to accommodate the construction. During that time, motorists were forced to make circuitous trips on Route 9 or the Garden State Parkway to travel between Sea Isle and Avalon instead of having a quick, direct hop over the Townsends Inlet Bridge.
Christopher Glancey, president of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization, noted that the bridge is crucial for the flow of tourist traffic along the Ocean Drive, the scenic coastal route connecting the Cape May County seashore towns.
“This is a vital link for our city and a vital link for our business community,” Glancey said.
Glancey praised the county for completing the work just in time for the summer season, when Sea Isle’s economy is energized by the tens of thousands of tourists who spend their vacations – and their money – in the beach town.
“We were always concerned, because in the past there were delays,” he said of previous construction and repair projects on the bridge.
Dealing a blow to the business community each time, the Townsends Inlet Bridge has had a string of closings in recent years for structural, maintenance or road-related work on the antiquated span. In 2017, it was shut down from April to late June for emergency repairs after structural cracks and deterioration were discovered during an underwater inspection.
Discussions continue on long-range plans to replace the bridge, which was built in 1939 during former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Currently, there is no money available to pay the estimated $105 million to $175 million cost for a new bridge.
Sea Isle and county officials have estimated it would take between three and 10 years for the planning, permitting and construction of a new bridge, once the funding is found.
In the meantime, efforts are underway to make the bridge safer for traffic. The maintenance project is replacing deteriorated old steel railings with modern steel railings that are strong enough to prevent cars or trucks from crashing off the bridge and into the water below.
In another improvement, the Cape May County Bridge Commission, the bridge operator, is in the midst of installing the E-ZPass toll system to allow motorists to pay their fares electronically instead of having to fumble for cash or coins. E-ZPass could be ready as soon as Memorial Day weekend, the commission says.
Even when E-ZPass is installed, motorists will still have the option of paying their tolls in cash or with discounted tickets.
On Wednesday afternoon, drivers were greeted with a handwritten sign that said “No Toll” as they crossed over the bridge. However, the $1.50 toll is expected to be restored soon.