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The Townsends Inlet Bridge connects Sea Isle City and Avalon.

By DONALD WITTKOWSKI

Motorists who regularly drive over the 83-year-old Townsends Inlet Bridge for trips between Sea Isle City and Avalon are probably aware of its history of closures for structural repairs and maintenance projects.

During the most recent coastal storm, the bridge was closed on May 10 for a little more than an hour and again on May 11 for more than six hours, according to traffic alerts issued by the Sea Isle Police Department.

But in this case, the bridge itself wasn’t to blame. Police temporarily closed down the span when stormy weather sent waves crashing over a rock seawall that protects the bridge and flooded the road on the Avalon side.

Flooding on the bridge’s approach road has been a problem for years, and now Cape May County officials are discussing the possibility of building a “cap” on top of the seawall to block the waves.

County Engineer Robert Church said he has mentioned the possibility of installing a concrete cap in talks with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer, the federal agency that would have regulatory authority over the project.

“They seemed supportive, but the design and permitting process will be lengthy,” Church said of the Army Corps in an email Monday. “The eventual disposition of the project will be determined once the project is funded, the design is initiated, and the permit process proceeds. But this has not occurred yet due to other critical projects in the pipeline throughout the county.”

Cape May County approved a $1 million study last year for the replacement of the Townsends Inlet Bridge, an antiquated span that was built in 1939 during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.

The study represents another preliminary step in what has been a multiyear process of planning and discussion to build a new bridge to connect Sea Isle and Avalon over Townsends Inlet.

In addition, the study will also look at replacing the approach road to the bridge, since it is vulnerable to storm waves crashing over the protective seawall on the Avalon side.

Waves can crash over the bridge’s protective rock seawall, in foreground, on the Avalon side during storms.

Karen Coughlin, executive director of the Cape May County Bridge Commission, the agency that operates the bridge, said police in Avalon and Sea Isle can close the span if they feel the waves are dangerous to motorists. That is what happened during the closures on May 10 and May 11.

“Any of the ‘bridge’ closures during the past week were due to the storm and winds. These are actually road closures from Avalon Police. Our bridge just happens to be connected to the road and is affected by the road closures,” Coughlin said in an email Monday.

The Townsends Inlet Bridge is one of five toll bridges operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission that connect the beach communities along the scenic Ocean Drive from Ocean City to Cape May.

When it is open, the Townsends Inlet Bridge allows motorists to make a direct hop to travel between Sea Isle and Avalon. But when it is closed, drivers must follow a lengthy detour on the Garden State Parkway or Route 9 for trips between both towns.

The bridge has gone through a series of shutdowns in recent years for structural repairs, maintenance work and related road construction. It underwent an $8.6 million reconstruction that forced it to close for 10 months in 2018 and 2019 while seven deteriorated spans on the Avalon side were replaced.

The construction of a new bridge is estimated to cost between $65.7 million and $167.7 million and would take years to complete, according to a county transportation report.

The county does not have the money to replace the bridge, but hopes to eventually secure state and federal funding to build a new one.

Over the years, the bridge has been closed a number of times for repair projects and reconstruction.