By Donald Wittkowski
So far this fall, construction on Sea Isle Boulevard has moved ahead with about as much speed as the slow-motion diamondback terrapins that lumber across the road to make their nests on the other side.
But after a series of frustrating delays, the $12.7 million reconstruction of Sea Isle’s main artery is finally supposed to resume Wednesday at “full force,” officials say.
Sea Isle Business Administrator George Savastano gave members of City Council an update on the road project during their meeting Tuesday.
“We’ve been looking for activity to take place out there,” Savastano said, referring to the construction site. “We’ve been informed that the contractor on the project will be in (Wednesday) at full force.”
Growing ever more impatient with the delays, Mayor Leonard Desiderio has repeatedly ridiculed the project as the “boulevard of broken dreams.”
“This is a real burden for all of us. This is a pain in the neck,” Desiderio said in an interview Tuesday.
However, the mayor was encouraged that construction will begin Wednesday at what he called a “full tilt” pace.
Cape May County, which oversees the project, is elevating a 1.7-mile stretch of the boulevard to protect it from the seashore’s notorious flooding. The project runs from the Garden State Parkway’s Exit 17 to the bridge entering Sea Isle.
Motorists were originally supposed to switch over from the existing, low-lying stretch of road to the newly elevated section in mid-October, but that date has now been pushed back to Thanksgiving week amid construction complications, Savastano noted.
Crews were expected to begin full-fledged construction shortly after Labor Day, but the project has limped along this fall. Delays occurred when South Jersey Gas Co. had to complete work on a natural gas line running underneath the new roadway, according to Savastano.
Despite the delays that have popped up so far, they should not jeopardize plans to have the entire roadway project completed prior to the summer of 2019, he said.
The multifaceted boulevard project began in 2014 and is being done in stages to accommodate the crush of summertime tourist traffic as well as the nesting season for migratory shorebirds.
The newly created elevated section is 4.5 feet higher than the existing low-lying lanes. Once traffic switches over to the higher side, work will begin to elevate the low lanes by 4.5 feet, too.
Huge mounds of dirt will be added to the low side and will sit there for more than a year. The process, known as “surcharging,” allows the dirt to become compact enough for the next part of the elevated boulevard to be built on top of it. According to plans, that phase of the project is scheduled for completion by the summer of 2019.
The new road will not only be higher, but will be wider than the cramped lanes that currently handle traffic in and out of Sea Isle. During peak travel times in the busy summer tourism season, it is not uncommon for traffic to get backed up heading into town.
Although the project will ultimately create a better roadway and evacuation route, the lengthy construction work has been a source of frustration for Sea Isle’s elected officials, business leaders and local residents.
“This has been going on for three years and they’re not halfway done yet,” Sea Isle resident Joe McDevitt complained to City Council at Tuesday’s meeting.
McDevitt said the project is dangerous because the narrow lanes along the boulevard leave virtually no “wiggle room” for traffic.
“People’s lives are at stake here,” he said.
Skeptical that the road will be done as scheduled in 2019, McDevitt predicted the completion date will actually be closer to the spring of 2020.
No road construction is allowed over the spring and summer as part of environmental restrictions that protect migratory osprey birds during their nesting season in the marshlands surrounding Sea Isle Boulevard.
Those environmental restrictions are in effect from March 15 to Aug. 15. Ospreys are classified by the state as a threatened species of bird.
Hoping to speed up construction, the Sea Isle Taxpayers Association and Sea Isle Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization have proposed removing the existing three osprey nests adjacent to the construction zone.
In exchange, nine new osprey nests would be built outside of the construction area to give the birds a different location to lay their eggs and raise their chicks. The nests consist of manmade, elevated platforms overlooking the marshlands.
But Desiderio said he was told “in no uncertain terms” by a high-level New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection official that the osprey nests will not be moved. Nor will the DEP allow new nests to be built in place of the existing ones, the mayor added.
The DEP, though, will let road construction continue for an extra month in the spring if the ospreys do not show up by March 18 to begin nesting, Desiderio said.
McDevitt urged city officials to sue the DEP to try to have the osprey restrictions lifted and allow road construction to continue year-round.
“People are as important, if not more important, than the ospreys,” McDevitt said in an interview after the Council meeting.