Closed since April 3, the bridge may reopen in time for the majority of the busy summer tourism season.

By Donald Wittkowski

The Townsends Inlet Bridge, a vital transportation link connecting the Jersey Shore towns of Sea Isle City and Avalon, is expected to reopen in late June following a three-month shutdown for emergency structural repairs on the nearly 80-year-old span.

Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio said Tuesday it appears the bridge will reopen during the week of June 26, although he stressed “there is still no guarantee on the timing.”

“We are keeping our fingers crossed,” Desiderio said while announcing the projected opening date at a City Council meeting.

There has been enough progress on the bridge’s structural repairs to indicate that the week of June 26 is a realistic target date for its operator, the Cape May County Bridge Commission, to “hopefully” reopen the span, the mayor noted.

Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio, right, stressed that the bridge closure has caused travel disruptions and harmed local businesses.

Cape May County originally planned to reopen the bridge in time for the Memorial Day weekend holiday rush, the traditional start of the summer tourism season, but complications with the repair work have kept it closed indefinitely.

The bridge was closed on April 3 after structural cracks and severe deterioration were found in the support piles during an underwater inspection. The most recent closing added to a series of shutdowns suffered by the bridge over the years for repairs, upkeep and related road construction.

The bridge was built in 1939. Repair work is being done on a cluster of three support piles originally installed in 1962 to reinforce the bridge after a monster storm pummeled the Jersey Shore that year and caused the bottom of Townsends Inlet to drop. The piles are part of a pier on the bridge’s bay side near Avalon.

Construction crews are reinforcing the bridge with new steel. The underwater work and swift tidal currents have made the repairs on one of the support piers “a very challenging undertaking,” causing the delays in getting the bridge reopened, the county said in a statement on May 19.

Motorists are greeted by barriers blocking access to the bridge, which is closed indefinitely for emergency structural repairs.

The bridge closure has severed a crucial part of Ocean Drive, a scenic seashore route that is popular with tourists and connects the barrier islands of Cape May County. As long as the bridge remains closed, motorists will have to detour miles out of their way to the Garden State Parkway or Route 9 to travel between Sea Isle and Avalon.

“It’s been an inconvenience,” Desiderio said of the impact of the bridge closure.

The travel disruptions have made it particularly hard for residents and tourists in Sea Isle and Avalon to enjoy the restaurants, shopping and other attractions offered by both towns, Desiderio emphasized.

“It’s a huge economic artery,” he said in an interview Tuesday after the City Council meeting. “It helps our town and it helps Avalon. It helps our community economically.”

At their board meeting June 6, members of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization said the bridge’s prolonged shutdown continues to harm local businesses.

Sea Isle hopes to enlist the support of the chambers of commerce in Avalon and Stone Harbor to lobby the Cape May County Bridge Commission for a new span. Sea Isle’s Chamber of Commerce wants to send a joint letter with Avalon and Stone Harbor to the commission outlining the frustrations and concerns all three towns have with the old bridge.

A “Bridge Closed” sign serves as a warning to motorists approaching the Townsends Inlet section of Sea Isle.

Desiderio, who has repeatedly expressed his frustration with the bridge closure, has said there is no money available to pay for the estimated $75 million to $100 million cost to build a new span.

Even if funding could be obtained, county officials have estimated it would take seven to 10 years to complete the planning, permitting and construction of a new bridge, meaning there is no relief in sight.

Funding for the emergency repair work to the Townsends Inlet Bridge will come from money that had previously been approved for a series of upgrades on county-owned spans. The county bridge program included maintenance work on the Townsends Inlet Bridge that had been scheduled for the winter of 2017-2018.

The Townsends Inlet Bridge is part of a network of aging spans along the Ocean Drive operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission. The other spans under the commission’s control are the Middle Thorofare Bridge, the Grassy Sound Bridge, the Corsons Inlet Bridge and the Ocean City-Longport Bridge.

Only the Ocean City-Longport Bridge is a modern span. The Townsends Inlet, Middle Thorofare and Grassy Sound bridges were built in the 1930s, while the Corsons Inlet Bridge is just a few years younger.