By Donald Wittkowski
There is no doubt that the nearly 80-year-old Townsends Inlet Bridge linking the Jersey Shore towns of Sea Isle City and Avalon won’t survive for 80 more years. But another 10 years seem probable.
As the closure of the creaky bridge drags on for a third week while emergency structural repairs are being made, it is becoming clear that the span will not be replaced any time soon.
There are two major factors: There is no money available to pay the estimated $75 million to $100 million cost for a new bridge, and even if there were, it would take more than 10 years to build it, officials say.
“If we had the funding today, it would take at least 10 years for the permitting and designs,” said Sea Isle City Mayor Leonard Desiderio, who is also a Cape May County freeholder.
Desiderio, who is frustrated with the 77-year-old bridge’s most recent closure, said he has not given up on his efforts to secure transportation funding from the federal government. However, the possibility of obtaining state financing seems remote, he noted.
Cape May County will not receive any money this year from the new 23-cent-a-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax, which is replenishing New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund for road, bridge and mass transit projects. In 2018, the county is expected to get just $2 million from the trust fund, Desiderio said.
“Deep South Jersey is the real loser in the 23-cent increase,” he said, referring to Cape May County being denied any money this year.
Desiderio said he has already been in contact with New Jersey state and federal lawmakers about the Townsends Inlet Bridge. He indicated he plans to lobby state legislators again in hopes that they will secure more New Jersey transportation funding for the county.
In the meantime, the bridge remains closed since it was shut down on April 3 after structural cracks and severe deterioration were found in the support piles during an underwater inspection. This closing adds to a series of shutdowns suffered by the antiquated bridge over the years.
“This is real trouble. It’s not something we want to continue to do,” Desiderio said. “We need the bridge. The bridge needs to be open.”
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. Desiderio noted he had to take a circuitous, 16-mile route from Sea Isle to Avalon over the weekend.
“We’re all well aware of the nuisance,” he said.
While stressing that safety is paramount, Desiderio said the bridge closure is causing financial hardship for the local businesses that depend on the flow of traffic between Sea Isle and Avalon. He also said he has been hearing complaints from local contractors and tradesmen about the difficulties of transporting their goods and materials between both towns.
Funding for the emergency repair work will come from money that had previously been approved for a series of upgrades on county-owned bridges, including maintenance work on the Townsends Inlet Bridge that had been scheduled for the winter of 2017-2018.
Construction crews are expected next week to begin the process of reinforcing the bridge with new steel piles. At this point, the bridge is expected to reopen in time for Memorial Day weekend, the start of the peak summer tourism season at the shore.
“As long as everything goes smoothly, they are on track,” Karen Coughlin, executive director of the Cape May County Bridge Commission, said of the repairs being completed by Memorial Day.
The bridge commission, the span’s operator, does not have the money to build a new Townsends Inlet Bridge. Coughlin said the commission collects only about $2.8 million in annual toll revenue from the five bridges it operates along the Ocean Drive seashore route.
“That’s not very much,” she said.
Coughlin explained that the commission’s main job in overseeing the bridges is to “pretty much just run them.” There is simply not enough money for major bridge improvements, she said.
Four of the Ocean Drive spans are draw bridges that need to be opened manually to allow boating traffic to pass underneath. U.S. Coast Guard regulations require that those bridges remain open to accommodate boat traffic, Coughlin said.
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, Coughlin said.
The commission has proposed a toll increase ranging from 50 cents to $1, mainly to finance the installation of the electronic E-ZPass fare collection system on all five of its spans.
In addition to funding the installation of E-ZPass, the toll increase would provide revenue to help balance the bridge commission’s budget, establish a bridge maintenance plan and build long-term capital improvements.
The commission had originally planned to start the toll increase and have E-ZPass ready on June 1, but now says it will postpone the work until after the busy summer season. In an interview Thursday, Coughlin said the commission is committed to completing the E-ZPass project, but she wasn’t as definite about the toll increase. The bridge commission is still talking about the proposed toll hike, she said.
The toll is currently $1.50 on the five Ocean Drive bridges. Sea Isle’s City Council approved a resolution at its March 14 meeting opposing the proposed toll increase, calling it an “excessive financial burden” on motorists.
Sea Isle officials hope to rally other shore towns that would be affected by a toll hike to join them in opposing it. Coughlin said Sea Isle is the only town she is aware of that has approved a resolution in opposition.
“They will take into consideration the resolution from Sea Isle,” she said of the bridge commission’s board members.