The Townsends Inlet Bridge connects Sea Isle City with Avalon.

By Donald Wittkowski

The Townsends Inlet Bridge connecting Sea Isle City and Avalon will be shut down until Sunday during a coastal storm that is expected to lash the Jersey Shore with whipping winds and possible major tidal flooding.

The closure is scheduled to last between 5 p.m. Thursday and sometime Sunday morning, according to Karen Coughlin, executive director of the Cape May County Bridge Commission, the bridge’s operator.

Coughlin described the bridge shutdown as a precautionary measure during the coastal storm. There are fears that storm water will wash over the road leading to the bridge on the low-lying Avalon side, making conditions too dangerous for traffic, she said.

“The tides are going to be very high and we’re also expecting some storm surge there,” she said.

Forecasters are predicting drenching rain combined with blustery conditions starting Thursday night and continuing all day Friday and into Saturday. At the very least, minor to moderate tidal flooding is expected through Saturday evening, coinciding with the high tide cycle.

“Depending on the track of the storm, major tidal flooding is a possibility due to the projected strong winds and how severe the storm-driven ocean surge is at the times of high tide,” Sea Isle City said in a storm advisory.

Steady winds are expected to blow between 25 mph and 35 mph, with gusts as strong as 65 mph, according to the forecast. High winds are another reason why the Townsends Inlet Bridge will be closed.

Temporary traffic lights that have been installed on the bridge during an ongoing maintenance project could get blown around in strong winds.

Coughlin noted that temporary traffic lights that have been installed on the bridge during an ongoing maintenance project could be blown around and become a hazard to motorists if the span remained open during the storm. The bridge has been reduced to one lane of alternating traffic during the maintenance work.

Construction crews are installing new railings on the bridge as part of the $2.7 million maintenance project. The maintenance work will cause the bridge to close for two or three weeks beginning in early April.

The Cape May County Bridge Commission is still working on the final details for April’s shutdown, including the day it will start. Coughlin said the contractor will need extra room on the bridge for its equipment while the railing is being installed, preventing traffic from using the span at that time.

“It would not be safe,” she said.

The maintenance project is scheduled to be completed before the arrival of the bustling summer tourism season.

“We have to be open by the summer,” Coughlin said.

New steel railings are being installed to protect both the motor vehicle traffic and pedestrians using the bridge. They will replace old, corroded railings that don’t meet modern safety standards. Some of the old railings date to the bridge’s original construction in 1939.

At the same time it is doing maintenance work, the county is studying the possibility of replacing the bridge with an entirely new span, but construction would not start for at least three or four years from now.

Greenman-Pedersen Inc., an engineering consultant hired by the Cape May County Bridge Commission, has recommended construction of a new bridge costing an estimated $175 million. The county currently doesn’t have the money for the project. Construction would depend on the combined resources of the county, state and federal governments.

The old bridge has been plagued by a string of shutdowns over the past five years for repairs, maintenance work or related road construction, prompting calls by Sea Isle officials for it to be replaced.