State officials announced long-awaited plans Wednesday to rehabilitate the bridge on the Route 72 Manahawkin Bay Causeway, which is the only access point into Long Beach Island.

The $350 million project will include building a new bridge parallel to the existing one and then making improvements on the current structure, which was built in 1960.

The new structure will be safer for motorists and include a bikeway for bicyclists and pedestrians and increase the capacity of people to travel onto and off the island.

Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, R-Ocean, Atlantic, Burlington, said the project will placed out for bid today and construction could start this year. The project could be fully complete by 2020.

The project has been discussed for at least a decade, he said.

"Ultimately it comes down to prioritizing projects based on available funds," he said. "The funds finally became available."

The state also has plans to improve the 3-mile stretch of road on Route 72 from Stafford Township to Ship Bottom. There will also be access to the water and improvements to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

Hurricane Sandy caused a lot of damage to the area at the end of October, and there could have been fears if the bridge was not redone that it could be seriously damaged in a future storm and people would not be able to evacuate.

But Rumpf said the project was not given a higher priority after the storm and it did not play a role in Wednesday's announcement.

"It's been years in the making," he said. "It's an endeavor we all appreciate and require."

The project had been in the plans for many years as the bridge needed a makeover, said Long Beach Township Mayor Joseph Mancini.

"Either it gets built or it'll fall down," he said of the project. "It's good. Let's get it done."

Stafford Mayor John Spodofora said with its announcement the state made a strong showing of support to the residents on Long Beach Island who were greatly affected by the storm.

"The state of New Jersey is telling us they are committed to help us out here," he said. "There's no question something had to be done. The bridge had many problems."

Spodofora said the project will also help the local economy. Not only with construction jobs — but with better flow of traffic onto the island there will be more people coming to visit — especially day trippers, he said.

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