By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Cape May County plans to make millions of dollars in improvements to the Townsends Inlet Bridge before it is replaced in coming years with an entirely new bridge, according to a newly released report.
The county is looking to squeeze more use out of the 80-year-old bridge with a series of improvements that will strengthen its superstructure, refurbish the toll booth and protect it from collision damage caused by boats passing underneath.
Built during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, the bridge links Sea Isle City and Avalon along the scenic Ocean Drive. It is one of five bridges operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission. The toll to cross it is $1.50.
The county, in partnership with the bridge commission, has embarked on a 15-year plan for the replacement and rehabilitation of county-controlled bridges. Details of the bridge program are contained in the county’s recently released Comprehensive Bridge Replacement and Improvement Plan.
According to the report, one of the first upgrades that are planned for the Townsends Inlet Bridge includes repairing the protective “fenders” that have been damaged by boats. Fenders are structures installed underneath the bridge to keep boats, barges and other marine vessels from slamming into the span and damaging it.
The fender project is expected to be designed in 2021, with construction in 2021 or 2022 at an estimated cost of $1.7 million to $1.9 million.
As another way of protecting the bridge, the superstructure will be recoated to prevent the steel from becoming corroded by the shore’s salt air. It was last recoated in 2011.
“The coating system is the structural steel’s first line of defense against the harsh marine environment,’ the bridge report says. “Repair of the coating system will arrest deterioration and extend the life of the structure until replacement.”
The recoating is tentatively scheduled to be done in 2022 or 2023 at a cost of about $1 million to $1.5 million.
In addition to the bridge itself, the toll booth is exposed to the ocean and harsh weather. The toll booth and the bridge’s “control house,” which operates the drawbridge, will be weatherproofed and given other upgrades. The project will also improve the work conditions for the toll collectors.
“This bridge is manned twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week, and is a vital entry point to a safe harbor from sea, second to Cape May Inlet,” the report notes.
The toll booth was last refurbished in 2015. The new upgrades are expected to cost between $140,000 and $180,000. Construction is expected in 2022 or 2023.
In another major improvement, the county also plans to strengthen the bridge by making repairs to the structural steel. Construction of the project is tentatively scheduled for 2023 or 2024 at an estimated cost of $2.4 million to $2.8 million.
Structural steel repairs would allow the bridge’s weight limit to remain at 15 tons. The bridge report noted that if the weight limit dropped below 15 tons it would “significantly impact local delivery vehicles.”
The bridge provides a short hop between Sea Isle and Avalon. If the weight limit was dropped below 15 tons, some of the heavier delivery trucks might not be allowed to cross the bridge, forcing them to take lengthy detours to travel between both towns.
In recent years, the bridge has gone through a series of shutdowns for structural repairs, maintenance work and related road construction, including an extensive rehabilitation that dragged on for 10 months through 2018 and 2019 and cost about $8.6 million.
As previously reported by SeaIsleNews.com, the county bridge report notes that there are plans to replace the Townsends Inlet Bridge with a new bridge. However, the existing bridge will likely remain in service for at least another decade before a new one is completed.
Under the projected timeline, preliminary work such as completing the designs, engineering and obtaining the regulatory permits might take as long as six years. Construction would add another three years, meaning the earliest a new bridge would open is 2029, the report said.
A new bridge is expected to cost between $65.7 million and $167.7 million, the report pointed out. The county does not have the money to replace the bridge, but hopes to eventually secure state and federal funding to build a new one.
Cost estimates range so widely because there are different alignments that a new bridge could follow when it is built over Townsends Inlet. Some proposed alignments would take the bridge closer to the ocean or bay, while others would follow the same path as the existing span.