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The Townsends Inlet Bridge connects Sea Isle City and Avalon.

By DONALD WITTKOWSKI

Following two high-profile accidents in 2023 and 2022 involving large vessels, the agency that operates the Townsends Inlet Bridge is looking to give the 85-year-old span more protection from boat collisions.

The Cape May County Bridge Commission will seek construction bids for a “fender” system to provide an extra layer of protection for the massive piers that support the span.

Fenders are structures installed underneath the bridge to keep boats, barges and other marine vessels from slamming into the span and damaging it.

During its monthly board meeting Thursday, the bridge commission took the first step for what is expected to be a multimillion-dollar project by agreeing to solicit competitive bids for the fender system.

Antonio Colon, the bridge commission’s project manager, said the tentative plan is to award the construction contract this summer after the bids are received and reviewed.

Work would get underway after Labor Day to avoid any conflicts with the peak summer boating season. The hope is to have construction completed by the end of the year, Colon said.

Colon and other officials with the bridge commission estimated that the project will cost upwards of $3 million. The project will replace the bridge’s existing fender system that has been damaged over the years.

A 52-foot yacht nearly sank after colliding with the bridge in 2023. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)

Two collisions in 2023 and 2022 involving large boats that nearly sank after hitting the bridge, illustrated the challenges of navigating the deep and swift Townsends Inlet, a body of water that links the bay and ocean between Sea Isle City and Avalon.

“It’s not easy to get through. You need to know what you’re doing to get through that channel, depending on the tide, maybe the weather,” Colon said of boats passing under the bridge in the inlet.

In June 2023, a 52-foot yacht slammed into the fenders and partially sank. The fenders prevented the yacht from causing even more damage to the main section of the bridge.

“They did their job. It’s exactly an example of why we have the fenders,” Colon said.

He added that the collision could have been “a much bigger issue” if the boat had struck the bridge’s support piers instead of the fenders.

“It’s to protect the piers from vessels. It’s to protect the bridge,” he said.

In July 2022, another major accident occurred when the Starfish charter boat based in Sea Isle City was pushed into the bridge by the inlet’s strong currents. The collision left a hole in the Starfish’s bow.

The large charter boat, which was carrying 22 passengers at the time, took on water and ran aground. All passengers were safely evacuated.

The Starfish charter boat was grounded in shallow water while undergoing repairs after hitting the bridge in 2022.

Officials with the bridge commission said during their meeting Thursday that they have no idea just how many boats may hit the Townsends Inlet Bridge or the fenders each year. They noted that they only know of the collisions that are formally reported to the commission.

The new fender system is part of millions of dollars in improvements that Cape May County plans to make to the antiquated Townsends Inlet Bridge before it is replaced in coming years with an entirely new bridge. The existing bridge was built in 1939 during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.

The county, in partnership with the bridge commission, has embarked on a 15-year plan for the replacement and rehabilitation of aging county-controlled bridges. Details of the bridge program are contained in the county’s Comprehensive Bridge Replacement and Improvement Plan released in 2020.

In addition to the new fenders, the report recommended a series of improvements to the Townsends Inlet Bridge, including renovations to the toll booth, strengthening the structural steel and recoating the superstructure to protect it from corrosion from the salt air.

Renovations to the toll booth were completed last year. The recoating of the superstructure and strengthening the structural steel have not yet been done, but remain in the plans, bridge commission officials said.

More details are expected when an updated version of the Comprehensive Bridge Replacement and Improvement Plan is released by the county, said Karen Coughlin, the bridge commission’s executive director.

The Townsends Inlet Bridge provides a short hop between Sea Isle and Avalon. In 2023, nearly 390,000 vehicles crossed over the bridge between the two towns.

Renovations were made to the toll booth in 2023 as part of millions of dollars in improvements planned for the bridge.

In recent years, the bridge has gone through a series of shutdowns for structural repairs, maintenance work and related road construction, including an extensive rehabilitation that dragged on for 10 months through 2018 and 2019 and cost about $8.6 million.

County officials have repeatedly expressed their hope to replace the bridge with a new span, but don’t have the money to do it.

A new bridge is expected to cost between $65.7 million and $167.7 million, the 2020 report pointed out. 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.

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.