UPPER TOWNSHIP — Cape May County expects to begin demolition of the Beesleys Point Bridge this fall, probably in October, by removing the drawbridge section in the center.
County engineer Dale Foster on Monday said the county’s obligation is to remove about three of the 120 individual sections of the aging 4,829-foot-long bridge.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority plans to begin removing the rest of the bridge in 2013 and will pay the costs. Foster said the county’s work only represents about 3 percent of the bridge but it’s a key area for vessels heading to boatyards up the Tuckahoe River and other marine traffic.
“This is just to open up the navigational channel, so it’s less restrictive. It’s fairly tight. The goal in the fall is to open up the navigational channel a bit more,” Foster said.
The 28-foot-wide bridge, constructed in 1928 by a private bridge company, has been closed to vehicular traffic since 2004 due to structural problems. The draw section has been kept open since that time.
Cape May County bought the bridge for $1 in 2008 from the Beesleys Point Bridge Co. with plans to restore it, but when cost estimates skyrocketed from $20 million to more than $32 million the plans were scrapped.
Foster said the work will be done in the fall due to restrictions that protect fish and marine turtles at other times of the year. The work could be done any time, but then coffer dams would have to be constructed around the demolition work, elevating the costs, now projected at about $1 million, he said. The county is fronting the money but expects to be reimbursed by the state.
“We have a letter of agreement from the state (Department of Transportation) to reimburse us for the costs,” said Gerald Thornton, director of the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
The Turnpike Authority, meanwhile, is still on track to begin its Beesleys Point Bridge demolition work in 2013 at the same time it begins construction of a new bridge for southbound traffic on the Garden State Parkway where it crosses Great Egg Harbor Bay.
Authority spokesman Thomas Feeney on Monday gave some new details on that project, including news that the southbound span will be constructed to the west, toward the B.L. England Generating Station.
Feeney said construction will begin in 2013 and take 30 to 36 months. The old southbound span, built in 1955, will remain open during that time. Another part of the project is refurbishing the northbound span that was built in 1973.
“Once construction of the new southbound span is complete, all traffic will be shifted onto it temporarily. The existing southbound span will then be demolished. Once that is done, northbound traffic will be shifted back onto the span that carries northbound traffic today,” Feeney said.
There had been concern the new southbound span would be located where the current one is today. That would have resulted in just the northbound span, only two lanes, crossing the bay for several years.
“It would have been a disaster,” said state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic. “Imagine two lanes with the Beesley’s Point Bridge closed and an accident occurs on the bridge. Keeping that bridge open will help a lot.”
Van Drew also said the new southbound span will be larger, with three lanes and a shoulder. The existing one is two lanes with no shoulder.
Feeney said plans call for a bicycle path separated from traffic by a barrier.
Wetlands that will be destroyed to construct the new bridge will be partially offset by wetlands restored, on both the Atlantic County and Cape May County sides, when the Beesleys Point Bridge is removed. This is one reason the state is willing to pay the demolition costs, estimated to be about $9 million.
If county taxpayers had to foot that bill, it would have raised a lot of questions on why the county bought the bridge from a private owner in the first place.
Thornton was the only freeholder to vote against buying the bridge for $1.
“It was one of the stupidest things I’ve seen in office,” said Thornton. “Everybody I met with and talked to, whether they wanted it to remain open or closed, everybody was against the county picking it up. It’s on a state highway (Route 9). Federal funding may have been available to the state but not to the county. I’m happy to see the taxpayers aren’t getting the short end of the stick here.”
Van Drew, who was initially in favor of the county taking it over, but changed his mind when cost estimates soared, said the original plan was to keep the Beesleys Point Bridge open for another 30 years.
He noted it could have been used by emergency workers in storms, leaving motorists more room to evacuate on the parkway bridge. He said the county is getting evacuation improvements, up to five lanes on two sound bridges, with the parkway bridge work.
He added that the wetlands credits made it financially beneficial for the Turnpike Authority to pay the demolition costs.
“This is the beauty of it. For once, something really worked out,” Van Drew said.
Mayor Richard Palombo is excited about having what he said will be the only bridge on the parkway with a bike path, but he is pushing for more amenities.
“Their feeling is the bridge is not safe enough for pedestrians or fishing. It’s something we’ll continue to press for because it would accentuate the area and draw people down,” Palombo said.
The mayor is also trying to get funding to put a fishing pier off of where Route 9 now ends in Beesleys Point, though the demolition might change the course of Route 9, a road that also defers to the parkway in Ocean County and ends in Lower Township, Cape May County, before resuming in Delaware.
The Cape May-Lewes Ferry is considered a Route 9 link between the states.
“They might make Route 9 end at Roosevelt Boulevard,” Palombo said.
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