UPPER TOWNSHIP — A group of anglers is trying to save a part of the decaying Beesleys Point Bridge, which is slated for demolition later this year, to use for fishing, birding and other recreational activities.
Local resident Nick Verducci, one of the organizers, said a petition to save part of the 1928 span has received 260 signatures in a little more than a week. Fishing, Verducci said, is good for business.
“New Jersey needs to get its head straight,” he said. “Florida has access everywhere.”
Verducci, who fishes both sides of the span that connects Somers Point and Upper Township, said the bridge is the best place to fish for striped bass, perch and winter flounder. The Cape May County side, meanwhile, is known for crabbing.
The effort got the attention of state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who met with the anglers this week. Van Drew said the fishermen are not looking to save the entire span, which is 28 feet wide and 4,829 feet long.
“I’m asking them to give me a precise location. If it’s doable, and I don’t know if it is, we’ll do anything possible to make it happen,” Van Drew said. “The state is always advocating for public access.”
But Van Drew noted a contract to demolish the bridge is expected to be awarded next month.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority has agreed to pay most of the $9 million cost because it can use the site to mitigate wetlands that will be affected when the Garden State Parkway bridge crossing the Great Egg Harbor Bay is worked on.
The authority plans to refurbish the 1973 northbound span and replace the 1955 southbound span. That project will impact wetlands, and they must be replaced elsewhere. The plan is to restore wetlands on both the Cape May County and Atlantic County sides of the Beesleys Point Bridge.
“There are wetlands mitigation issues,” Van Drew said. “The question is whether we can squeeze this in. We’re in the final minutes of the game here.”
The bridge is actually owned by Cape May County, which purchased it in 2008 from a private company for $1 with plans to refurbish it. When cost estimates came in at more than $32 million, the county scrapped the plan.
The county is already responsible for removing the drawbridge, which includes three of the 120 individual sections of the bridge, at a cost of $1 million — but the state has pledged to reimburse the money.
Cape May County wants to make sure it doesn’t get stuck with removing the entire bridge, so it has pushed for the mitigation plan to go through. Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said the county would defer to the Turnpike Authority and the state Department of Transportation on the issue.
“We’ll comply with whatever the state wishes us to as long as the state takes down the bridge without a cost to Cape May County taxpayers,” said Thornton.
The pier idea, Thornton said, is not without merit but he noted there would be safety, liability and maintenance issues.
“I’m sure nobody knows how safe any of that structure is going to be. It has merit, but the key is safety and maintenance,” Thornton said.
The bridge is rusting, concrete is cracking and the roadway has buckled in some areas. Bulkhead on the sides leading up to the entrance is in poor shape. It was closed to traffic in 2004 due to structural issues.
Verducci acknowledged that the “bridge is a mess,” but said other old bridges have had sections rebuilt into fishing piers.
He said the anglers wanted fishing access at the new parkway bridge, especially access to Drag Island, but that isn’t in the plans. The new bridge will have a bike lane, the only one on the parkway, but no fishing areas.
“Once the new one is built we can’t get access,” Verducci said. “It will shut off the main channel.”
Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo has also pushed for fishing on the new bridge or some sort of a pier on Beesleys Point Bridge.
“He’s looked into a portion near the Tuckahoe Inn,” said Verducci.
Workers at the historic 1736 inn would like to see the bridge either used or removed.
“If they’re going to use it for something, fine, if not then take it away. It takes away from our scenery,” said Karen Holjes, a bartender at the inn from Somers Point who has had an extra five miles in her commute since the span closed.
Dee O’Donnell, another worker, who lives in Beesleys Point, would like to see it refurbished as a key evacuation route in case of storms. Barring that, she said, it should be left for the anglers.
“I think they should leave it open for the men to fish. It definitely would help business,” she said.
A sign at the foot of the bridge says it is closed to pedestrians, bicycles, fishing and crabbing.
Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the authority, said without a specific proposal its hard to determine any affects on the mitigation plans. He said the pier idea is “not even a consideration at this point” and some local issues would have to be resolved before the authority “even got involved in the conversation.”
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