By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Cape May County is preparing to launch a $1 million study for the replacement of the Townsends Inlet Bridge, an antiquated span that was built during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.
The “concept development study” is part of a series of road, bridge and drainage projects proposed in two separate bond ordinances, totaling $40 million, scheduled for approval on Tuesday by the Cape May County Board of Commissioners.
“This is an initial list of projects, but some projects can be held up by permitting, utility relocations, etc., so there is a possibility this entire list of projects may not take place in the timeframe mentioned as a result,” said Denis Brown, administrative aide to the commissioners.
The Townsends Inlet Bridge replacement study is tentatively scheduled within the next six months. It is another preliminary step in what has been a multiyear process of planning and discussion to build a new bridge to connect Sea Isle City and Avalon over Townsends Inlet.
The study will also look at replacing the approach road to the bridge. Over the years, the approach road on the Avalon side has been vulnerable to storm waves crashing over a protective rock seawall, forcing the bridge to temporarily close to traffic.
Hoping to alleviate the recurring problem, county officials have been talking to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection about the possibility of building a two-foot “cap” on top of the seawall to prevent the waves from flooding the road, Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio said.
“This is a problem that has been going on for many, many, many years,” Desiderio, who also serves on the Cape May County Board of Commissioners, said in an earlier interview.
Desiderio has been among the local and county officials who have been frustrated with the bridge’s series of shutdowns in recent years for structural repairs, maintenance work and related road construction. On top of everything else are the occasional closures caused by the waves crashing over the seawall.
“The bridge has added a couple of gray hairs to my head,” Desiderio said of all the troubles over the years.
Built in 1939, 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.
The county does not have the money to replace the Townsends Inlet Bridge, but hopes to eventually secure state and federal funding to build a new one. Cost estimates for a new bridge range from $65.7 million to $167.7 million, according to a county transportation report released last year.
Cost estimates range so widely because there are different alignments that a new bridge could follow when it is built over Townsends Inlet. Some proposed alignments would take the bridge closer to the ocean or bay, while others would follow the same path as the existing span.
The least expensive option would be to build a new bridge along the same path as the existing one, but that would force the structure to be closed for months at a time during construction. During that time, direct access between Sea Isle and Avalon would be cut off for motorists, forcing them to take lengthy detours to travel between both towns, the study said.
Under the projected timeline, preliminary work such as completing the designs, engineering and obtaining the regulatory permits might take as long as six years. Construction would add another three years, the report said.
To keep the old bridge in service, the county undertook an $8.6 million reconstruction project in 2018 and 2019 that replaced seven deteriorated spans on the Avalon side.
Townsends Inlet Bridge allows motorists to make a direct hop to travel between Sea Isle and Avalon. When the bridge is closed, drivers must follow a lengthy detour on the Garden State Parkway or Route 9 for trips between both towns.