By Donald Wittkowski
The mayors of Sea Isle City and Avalon are demanding “nothing less than full disclosure” from Cape May County regarding the construction delays that will keep the Townsends Inlet Bridge closed for most of the critical summer tourism season.
Cape May County, which owns and maintains the 80-year-old bridge linking Sea Isle and Avalon, shocked both communities Monday by revealing that the span is not expected to reopen until “late summer,” far later than the May 22 completion date that was originally announced.
Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio and Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi responded by issuing a joint statement Tuesday calling for “full transparency” about the bridge’s $8.6 million reconstruction project.
“Everyone in our community is having a tremendous amount of difficulty understanding why a formal announcement on this closure comes fewer than 50 days before the start of the summer tourism season in our communities,” Pagliughi said. “We will accept nothing less than full disclosure on how and why this project is at least three months behind schedule and why it has taken until now to finally get a completion schedule from the county.”
Both mayors said they recognize that the shutdown of the only direct link between Sea Isle and Avalon will cause economic harm to businesses on both sides of the bridge. They plan to ask the county about its contingency plan to manage the bridge closure through the summer.
“This news is both disappointing and disturbing to residents, property owners, and merchants on both sides of the Townsends Inlet Bridge,” said Desiderio, who is also a Cape May County freeholder. “We understand and appreciate problems that may occur during bridge construction projects, but there must be complete transparency in this matter.”
In its statement Monday, the county said it estimates the bridge will not reopen until late summer, but was not more specific.
“With public safety as the foremost concern, but with keen awareness of the inconvenience and impacts the delay will cause residents and businesses in Avalon and Sea Isle City, the county and all involved in the Townsends Inlet project are working together to achieve the earliest opening date possible and will be able to better project the expected opening date in the next thirty days after key construction activities are completed,” the statement said.
The county blamed the construction delays on a series of issues, including demolition work, underwater salvage operations and unspecified “subsurface geotechnical complications.”
In the meantime, motorists will continue to follow a lengthy detour on the Garden State Parkway or Route 9 for trips between Sea Isle and Avalon. The closure of the Townsends Inlet Bridge means that drivers must endure a 32-mile round-trip journey between both towns instead of taking a short hop over the bridge.
Built in 1939, the antiquated bridge has gone through a series of shutdowns in recent years for structural repairs, maintenance work and related road construction. Estimates to build an entirely new bridge range from $105 million to $175 million, but the county does not have the money.
In 2017, the bridge closed for emergency repairs from April to late June after a structural crack and severe deterioration were discovered during an underwater inspection.
Drone video of bridge work courtesy of Remington & Vernick Engineers
The construction project that is being done now will replace seven deteriorated spans on the Avalon side. The bridge closed in September when the work started.
Each time the bridge has been closed, it has drawn the anger of Sea Isle’s business leaders and elected officials.
During Sea Isle’s City Council meeting Tuesday, a local restaurant owner warned that the bridge’s closure over the summer tourism season will hurt him as well as other businesses in town.
“I think it’s really going to have a financial impact on Sea Isle City,” Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant, told the Council members.
In remarks during the Council meeting, Sea Isle Business Administrator George Savastano wondered out loud about the bridge work, “Why are we three months behind schedule?”
Savastano emphasized that Desiderio and Pagliughi plan to press the county for answers. Using similar language as the mayors’ joint statement, he said there is a need for “full disclosure on this matter.”
“I can tell you both mayors of Avalon and Sea Isle City are very upset about this,” Savastano said.