By Donald Wittkowski
It’s not the easiest of turns, especially at night.
Motorists leaving Sea Isle City on Sea Isle Boulevard have to make a hard right and then squeeze into a narrow lane next to a concrete construction barrier to head north on the Garden State Parkway.
For the past three years, this mini-obstacle course has challenged everyone’s driving skills at the Exit 17 on-ramp to the parkway. It is even more difficult in limited visibility at night.
But as part of the next phase of Sea Isle Boulevard’s reconstruction, the entrance ramp is being reconfigured to offer a much wider and easier way to hop on the parkway at Exit 17.
Work crews have started construction on a new ramp that will allow motorists to merge onto the parkway’s northbound lanes without having to go through the trouble of making a sharp right-hand turn.
“I have confidence in them that it will be a lot better. It already looks a lot better,” Jack Gibson, president of Sea Isle’s City Council, said of the new ramp as it begins to take shape.
Gibson, who is a civil engineer, hopes the project will include a deceleration lane allowing cars to slow down and then merge onto the on-ramp without backing up traffic behind them.
It is not clear when the ramp will be completed, but previously Cape May County said the final work on Sea Isle Boulevard would be finished in time for the summer tourism season beginning Memorial Day weekend. The county oversees the boulevard.
Robert Church, the Cape May County engineer, could not be reached for comment Tuesday about the new ramp. A spokesman for the New Jersey Highway Authority, the parkway’s operating agency, also was unavailable for comment.
During the past four years, Sea Isle Boulevard has undergone a $12.7 million reconstruction. The road has been raised by 4.5 feet to create an elevated evacuation route that will protect motorists from flooding on the low-lying barrier island.
Altogether, a 1.7-mile stretch of the boulevard has been rebuilt from the Garden State Parkway’s Exit 17 to the bridge entering Sea Isle. In the final stages of the project, the new ramp linking the boulevard with the northbound lanes of the parkway is under construction.
The boulevard serves as the main entryway into Sea Isle. The rebuilt road is wider than the cramped old boulevard and includes new shoulders as another safety feature.
Meanwhile, Exit 17 remains only a two-way interchange. In its current configuration, the interchange is split into two parts.
Exit 17’s off-ramp on the southbound side of the Garden State Parkway merges with Sea Isle Boulevard. For motorists wanting to access the parkway’s northbound lanes, they must follow Sea Isle Boulevard out of town and then hop on the on-ramp.
However, there is no southbound access to the parkway at Exit 17 off Sea Isle Boulevard. In addition, there is no exit to Sea Isle off the parkway’s northbound side.
Frustrated with the limited amount of access at Exit 17, Sea Isle officials want to see the two-way interchange turned into a full-fledged, four-way interchange.
City Council unanimously approved a resolution in July 2017 calling on the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to build a four-way interchange.
Gibson, who has championed the project, said a four-way interchange is needed to improve both safety and traffic flow, particularly on summer weekends, when Sea Isle is flooded with tourists.
Exit 17’s limited access causes bottlenecks that spill off the parkway onto Sea Isle Boulevard and cascade to Route 9, he explained.
Nearly two years after City Council approved the resolution, Gibson is still waiting for a response from the highway authority on Sea Isle’s request for a four-way interchange.
In an interview Tuesday, Gibson called the city’s request “a longshot.” He noted that he doesn’t feel insulted that the highway authority has not yet responded to Council’s resolution.
“The last thing I want to do is get into a fight unnecessarily with the people we need to work with from time to time,” he said of the authority.