By Donald Wittkowski
It is a pristine, freshly paved stretch of road that will serve as the higher and drier evacuation route for Sea Isle City when it opens to motor vehicle traffic after Labor Day.
Although the newly elevated section of Sea Isle Boulevard won’t be ready for cars and trucks until the fall, city officials have begun discussing the possibility of letting walkers and bicyclists use it over the summer.
“I’m hopeful we’ll be able to use it for pedestrians and for bicycles,” Mayor Leonard Desiderio said during remarks about the boulevard at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Desiderio noted that Sea Isle officials plan to sit down with the Cape May County engineer to talk about the plan. The boulevard serves as the main gateway into Sea Isle, but it is a county road.
Without cars or trucks driving on it, the new road could serve as a recreation oasis of sorts for bikers, walkers and joggers over the summer. They wouldn’t have to worry about dodging motor vehicle traffic along a nearly two-mile stretch of blacktop that offers panoramic views of the surrounding marshlands.
Contractors began paving the new road this week, giving the first glimpse of what it will look like when it is finished. A layer of glistening, new asphalt has already been paved for one of the lanes.
Despite the mayor’s initial support for the plan, City Council President William Kehner said he believes the proposal to open the road to bikers and pedestrians needs further study to make sure they would be safe.
“If you allow people on the project before they’re ready for it, there’s a liability issue,” he said in an interview.
Among his concerns, Kehner is worried that bikers could be in danger if they merged with motor vehicle traffic entering Sea Isle at the base of the bridge. He has the same concerns about bikers mixing with traffic at the opposite end of the boulevard near the northbound entrance of the Garden State Parkway.
“I would like to hear more about how we would keep bicyclists out of the way of traffic and what sort of protection they would have out there,” he said.
For the past three years, construction crews have been rebuilding Sea Isle Boulevard to create a higher evacuation route for the flood-prone barrier island community. The $12.7 million project will initially elevate the road by 4.5 feet on the north side of the boulevard.
In the meantime, traffic continues to use the existing, low-lying lanes on the south side of the road. In the next two years, the south side will also be elevated by 4.5 feet.
Originally, the project called for the elevated north side to be paved and opened to traffic by March. However, delays with the installation of a gas main that runs underneath the roadway pushed back the paving schedule.
Under the latest timetable, work crews are scheduled to complete the paving by April. Although the road will be paved, traffic will not begin using it until after Labor Day because of summertime environmental restrictions that protect migratory birds that arrive in the spring to make their nests in the surrounding marshlands.
The boulevard is being reconstructed between the northbound entrance to the Garden State Parkway and the bridge entering Sea Isle. The multifaceted project is being done in phases. The current phase includes paving the road and shifting traffic onto the newly built elevated portion.
However, the construction delays will prevent traffic from switching over from the south side to the elevated section on the north side until the fall.
The new boulevard will not only be higher, but will also be wider than the narrow 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 Sea Isle officials are disappointed with the recent construction delays and the impact on traffic, Kehner is urging patience.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said.