By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
The Townsends Inlet Bridge linking Sea Isle City and Avalon was built in 1939 during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.
After all these years, it is showing its age. The 81-year-old relic has gone through a series of shutdowns in recent years for structural repairs, maintenance work and related road construction, including an extensive rehabilitation that dragged on for 10 months through 2018 and 2019.
However, the Townsends Inlet Bridge will likely remain in service at least through this decade before it is finally replaced, according to Cape May County’s newly released Comprehensive Bridge Replacement and Improvement Plan.
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.
The construction of a new bridge is expected to cost between $65.7 million and $167.7 million, the report said. 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.
Each option would come with different costs and different regulatory requirements because of their various environmental impacts.
“There are environmentally sensitive areas on both approaches of the bridge, which will extend the permitting process and possibly affect the proposed alignment of a new bridge,” the report says.
The least expensive option would be to build a new bridge along the same path as the existing one, but that would force the structure to be closed for months at a time during construction. During that time, direct access between Sea Isle and Avalon would be cut off for motorists, forcing them to take lengthy detours to travel between both towns.
“The replacement bridge may likely be built off-line in order to maintain existing traffic flow. If an in-line replacement plan is selected, annual shutdowns between September and May will be necessary,” according to the report.
In 2017, an engineering consultant recommended building a new bridge parallel to the existing one to keep traffic flowing at all times. Once the new bridge is finished, the old one would be demolished.
In the meantime, the county is planning a series of repairs and improvements to keep the bridge open to traffic, including strengthening the structural steel.
During an $8.6 million refurbishment in 2018 and 2019, seven deteriorated spans of the bridge on the Avalon side were replaced to wring more years of life out of the structure.
The county report says that in 2017 the overall condition of the Townsends Inlet Bridge was ranked as “poor” by the National Bridge Inspections Standards within the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Some of the concerns about the bridge’s condition were addressed by the refurbishment project in 2018 and 2019. Inspections are conducted on the bridge’s superstructure and substructure to ensure it remains safe for traffic, the report pointed out.
The Townsends Inlet Bridge is one of five bridges operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission that connect the beach communities along the scenic Ocean Drive. Overall, the county owns and operates 23 bridges, a few of them dating back 90 years.
The county, in partnership with the Cape May County Bridge Commission, has embarked on a comprehensive 15-year plan for the replacement and rehabilitation of county-controlled bridges. The county’s Board of Chosen Freeholders unanimously adopted the plan at its Aug. 25 meeting.
“The adoption of the Comprehensive Bridge Replacement and Improvement Plan is the culmination of nearly two years of hard work by a great team of dedicated and competent people,” Freeholder Will Morey said in a news release. “The plan establishes a fiscally responsible path forward for the realization of what has been previously and frequently debated but struggled to advance: the thoughtful and responsible restoration of our critical bridge infrastructure.”
The county has invested more than $30 million in state and county funds for bridge maintenance, repairs, reconstruction, and replacement over the last 10 years. This includes the re-decking of bridges, substructure repairs, superstructure repairs, electrical upgrades and guiderail replacements, according to the release.
Over the past two years, the county has begun to implement modest portions of the bridge plan through several rehabilitation projects. The projects are intended to address current safety issues and extend the longevity of the existing structures in order to minimize concurrent capital spending in the future, County Engineer Robert Church said.
“We work very hard to keep our bridges safe and structurally sound,” Church said in the release. “But the time has come to upgrade the structures to ensure that they will last for many, many decades to come and provide the people of Cape May County with a reliable transportation infrastructure that connects the communities and helps our economy.”