By Donald Wittkowski
The nearly 80-year-old Townsends Inlet Bridge connecting Sea Isle City with Avalon has been closed indefinitely for emergency structural repairs.
Divers performing underwater inspections Monday discovered a crack and “severe deterioration” in some of the piles that support the span, according to the Cape May County Engineer’s Office.
County Engineer Dale Foster said the plan is to complete the repairs and reopen the bridge well before the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the peak summer tourism season at the Jersey Shore.
“I believe we’ll be open long before that,” Foster said in an interview Tuesday.
In the meantime, motorists who normally use the bridge 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 a big inconvenience for folks who want to go to Avalon or come from Avalon and for passengers riding on New Jersey Transit buses,” Sea Isle Business Administrator George Savastano said.
Savastano issued a statement Tuesday emphasizing that repairs will be done on an emergency basis “to allow the bridge to be opened to traffic as quickly as possible.”
“While we understand the inconvenience this causes to many people, we appreciate that the county is placing safety above all else,” the statement said.
Foster said the county has been told by a regional supplier that it already has the steel on hand to fix the bridge. The next step is to mobilize the equipment and materials for the repair project.
The bridge was closed Monday following an underwater inspection that was part of a normal two-year checkup cycle for the span. Divers discovered a crack and some movement in one support pile about 20 feet underwater. They also found severe deterioration in a three-pile cluster that supports one of the piers on the Avalon side of the bridge, the county said.
The piles are part of piers that make up the bridge’s support system. They were installed in 1962 to provide additional support for the bridge after a huge coastal storm that year caused the bottom of the inlet to drop, the county said.
The damage discovered Monday prompted the county to immediately shut down the bridge, fearing it would not be strong enough to carry the weight of traffic.
“This places the pier in an unstable condition to support loads,” the county said in a statement.
Funding for the emergency repair work will come from money that had previously been approved for a series of upgrades on county-owned spans, including maintenance work on the Townsends Inlet Bridge that had been scheduled for the winter of 2017-2018.
The Townsends Inlet Bridge has been closed at other times during the past five years. After Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Jersey Shore in 2012, the bridge was shut down while the storm-damaged road on the Avalon side was rebuilt. Another repair project stretched through 2015 before the bridge was reopened in mid-June, Savastano said.
Townsend’s Inlet, which was built in 1940, is part of a network of toll bridges along the Ocean Drive operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission. The bridge commission has proposed a toll increase ranging from 50 cents to $1, mainly to finance the installation of the electronic E-ZPass fare collection system on all five of its spans.
In addition to funding the installation of E-ZPass, the toll increase would provide revenue to help balance the bridge commission’s budget, establish a bridge maintenance plan and build long-term capital improvements.
The commission had originally planned to start the toll increase and have E-ZPass ready on June 1, but now says it will take another four or five months before it completes the project and raises fares. The toll is currently $1.50 on the five Ocean Drive bridges.