Pedestrians will get a link between Atlantic and Cape May counties and anglers will get a new fishing spot with a plan to replace a bridge on the Garden State Parkway over the Great Egg Harbor Bay, New Jersey Turnpike Authority officials told a crowd of about 50 community members at a public hearing in Upper Township on Thursday.
Construction of new, wider southbound span and demolition of the Beesleys Point bridge is projected to cost $210 million. Work should begin in March and be finished by the end of 2016. The purpose is to replace a nearly 60-year-old main structure that is cracking, rusting and functionally obsolete in order to make traffic safer and ensure the road as an evacuation route.
Officials also said the entire stretch of Route 9 that has crossed the waterway since 1928 will also be wiped out as part of the plan.
That will eliminate access to Drag Island, which some fishermen and crabbers still use, but the new bridge will also have a bump-out area to cast and drop cages from. A parking lot will be built in Somers Point that can be accessed by Route 9.
All this work will be done with minimal traffic disruption, lead project engineer Elizabeth Trimpin said Thursday, because the current bridge will be demolished only when the new southbound bridge is complete.
The new span will be twice as wide as the current northbound bridge over the bay between Somers Point and Upper Township and will also be the only parkway bridge with a mixed-use walkway for pedestrians and bicyclists.
“That’s what they had on the Beesleys Point bridge so we wanted to maintain that,” said Robert Fischer, assistant chief engineer at the Turnpike Authority, which controls the Parkway.
The agency plans to request bids on the project in November, award a contract in January and see construction on the new bridge and demolition of the Beesleys Point causeway begin in March. There are no plans to replace the northbound span.
Only a few residents and officials spoke at Thursday’s hearing in the Upper Township Municipal Hall. Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton spoke first and praised the plan.
“For little Cape May County to have a $210 million project coming our way” is something the state should be commended for, he said.
John Peterson, deputy director of Atlantic County’s division of planning, requested that the walkway and bike path across the bridge also have pedestrian and bicycle access from Route 9 in order to fully connect with the rest of the county and even Ocean City over its new causeway on Route 52.
Roberta Townsend, of Upper Township’s Palermo section, raised concerns about safety at the Somers Point toll plaza, saying it is often congested and confusing as motorists veer to get to the appropriate lane.
Fred Fontana, of Somers Point, asked to confirm that there would be minimal traffic disruption in order to report back to the Somers Point economic development advisory commission.
Trimpin repeated that no major traffic disruptions were planned. Engineer Glen Schetelich said that at some points the southbound roadway may be closed down to one lane.
The new bridge will be built about 12 feet west of the current southbound bridge. It will have two 12-foot-wide lanes with a 7-foot shoulder on one side and a 24-foot shoulder on the other.
The mixed-use walkway would be 10 feet wide, with a barrier and large mesh screen between it and the road.
Construction will require clearing nearly an acre and a half of trees and the authority plans to replace that loss with more than two acres of trees in the vicinity.
Some of that environmental mitigation will be accomplished through removing the Beesleys Point bridges and causeway that has sat unused by cars since 2004.
The area just before the first bridge over the Drag Channel can still be accessed by car, and fishermen often use it.
On Thursday evening, Michael Ware and his son Michael Ware II, both of Egg Harbor Township, were putting crab traps over the side of the dilapidated bridge. It was their second time out there and first they heard of plans to remove it.
The road is literally falling apart. Huge chunks of asphalt have been eroded way, the water is visible through cracks in the decking and metal plates have been bolted on top to cover holes.
It is also covered in seashells and crab shells dropped by sea gulls and glass and garbage dropped by people.
Ware said it is a shame that the former route would finally be removed and only the parkway bridges would be left. He said he felt bad for people on the Upper Township side of Route 9, who are now assured of having an approximate four-mile detour that takes them south before they can go north.
He said the Turnpike Authority should at least build an exit ramp on the new span so motorists can get right to Beesleys Point, a proposal that did not come up during Thursday’s public hearing.
There are no plans to replace the northbound bridge, which was built in 1973.
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