UPPER TOWNSHIP — Anti-terrorism fence installed last year to protect the Great Egg Harbor Bridge — considered by many to be an eyesore and a waste of money — is coming down earlier than expected, according to a joint release Friday afternoon from Gov. Chris Christie and state Sen. Jeff Van Drew.

“The fence is coming down, and they’re going to start next week. A lot of it will be down by Memorial Day,” said Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic.

Cape May County Freeholder Sue Sheppard, who earlier this year convinced the freeholders to pass a resolution pushing for removal of the fence, credited Van Drew for following up on the board’s request.

“It’s extremely ugly as the first vision of Cape May County that visitors get,” said Sheppard, a Republican.

Van Drew previously announced the fence would be removed in 2013 when a project begins to replace the southbound lane of the bridge, but he also vowed to fight for an earlier removal, preferably before Memorial Day Weekend.

Van Drew thanked Christie and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority for the decision.

“I want to thank the governor. He is a man of action. If you logically present something to him, he’ll make a decision that is right for New Jersey, or in this case southern New Jersey,” Van Drew said.

Christie said work would begin Monday and that he hoped the fence could be removed by Memorial Day.

“I am pleased that by working with Sen. Van Drew on this issue. We have been able to move forward with a solution to address the concerns of local residents,” Christie said.

The fence cost $250,000 but was part of a larger $7 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to fortify 10 of the turnpike authority’s bridges. The other nine did not create any particular controversy but here, a region that relies on tourists drawn to the seashore, there was a negative response. Part of that may have been because some were already upset about a major tree removal project along 34 miles of the parkway from Somers Point to Stafford Township. A toll increase did not help.

Fewer trees and an 8-foot-tall fence topped with barbed wire is not the image the region wants to present. Van Drew said it is mostly about aesthetics.

“The bridge is a gateway to both Cape May and Atlantic counties,” said Van Drew. “It is surrounded by some of the most beautiful vistas in the country. While seemingly not a huge issue, placement of this fence truly bothered residents and visitors alike. Both because it aesthetically had the appearance of a security system around a penitentiary and was obviously non-functional.”

The function of the fence had been subject to debate partly because boaters could still access the underside of the bridge. It didn’t help that a gate on the fence was left open for weeks, as reported in The Press of Atlantic City earlier this week.

The turnpike authority argued the bridge was the most vulnerable of the 10 fortified on the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike, but, citing national security concerns, declined to give details on what the vulnerabilities were. The authority approved the project following a $412,000 security assessment of state bridges by the New York firm Weidlinger Associates. Details in the report were not released to the media.

The span is a key route along the coast especially since the Beesley’s Point Bridge — now slated for demolition — closed several years ago. The southbound lane, constructed in 1955, is set to be replaced in a project starting next year. The northbound lane built in 1973 will be refurbished but not replaced.

Cape May County freeholders passed a resolution in January asking the authority to remove it. Van Drew got involved and in February he announced a plan to remove it when the bridge work is done in 2013. In April, the senator toured the bridge with Charles McKenna, Christie’s chief counsel, and pushed him for an earlier removal.

Van Drew said the fencing itself, which he estimated to have cost about $100,000 for materials, will be reused at an undisclosed location. He does not expect additional costs to remove it.

Van Drew said 99 percent of the half-mile fence will be removed but a few feet would be retained where the bridge meets the Garden State Parkway.

“I guess it shows perseverance pays off and one thing I am is persistent. It’s also a governor willing to think outside the box,” Van Drew said.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711