By Donald Wittkowski
Now dragging into its second month, the closure of the Townsends Inlet Bridge for emergency repairs is prompting calls for the nearly 80-year-old structure to be replaced with a new span connecting Sea Isle City and Avalon.
At their board meeting Tuesday, members of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization said the bridge’s prolonged shutdown has severed a crucial transportation link along the Jersey Shore and continues to harm local businesses.
“It hurts everybody. It’s nuts,” said Christopher Glancey, Chamber of Commerce president.
Sea Isle hopes to enlist the support of the chambers of commerce in neighboring Avalon and Stone Harbor to lobby the Cape May County Bridge Commission, the bridge owner, for a new span. Sea Isle wants to send a joint letter with Avalon and Stone Harbor to the commission outlining the frustrations and concerns all three towns have with the old bridge.
Glancey urged Cape May County to immediately begin the planning for a new span instead of spending millions of dollars on repair jobs and maintenance to try to wring more use out of the antiquated bridge.
“You have to start planning on a new bridge now,” he said.
Glancey, however, noted that Sea Isle and county officials have estimated it would take seven to 10 years to complete the planning, permitting and construction of a new bridge, meaning there is no relief in sight.
Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio, who has repeatedly expressed his frustration with the bridge closure, has said there is no money available to pay for the estimated $75 million to $100 million cost to build a new span.
The Townsends Inlet Bridge, which was built in 1939, is part of a network of aging spans along the Ocean Drive operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission. 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.
Glancey said the bridge’s closure has severed a crucial part of Ocean Drive, a scenic seashore route that is popular with tourists and connects the barrier islands of Cape May County.
“The impact is, we lose all of the people from Avalon, Stone Harbor and everywhere else south of us,” Glancey said. “I don’t think you can overstate the importance of this bridge for commerce on these islands.”
The bridge was closed 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 bridge over the years for repairs, upkeep and related road construction.
“It’s been closed more than it’s been open over the last 10 years,” Glancey said.
Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant in Sea Isle, predicted that the structural problems with the bridge will be perpetual.
“This is just going to be ongoing every year,” Monichetti said during the Chamber of Commerce meeting.
The county had originally hoped to reopen the bridge in time for the Memorial Day weekend holiday rush, the traditional start of the summer tourism season, but complications with the repair work will keep it closed indefinitely.
“That work is slow-going,” Glancey said.
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.
Construction crews are 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 on May 19.
The bridge contractor is working 12-hour shifts on weekdays and 8-hour shifts on Saturdays, weather permitting, to complete the repairs, the county said.
The cost of the emergency repair job has not yet been disclosed. Funding for the work 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 originally been scheduled for the winter of 2017-2018.