UPPER TOWNSHIP — Joe Innocente, like most people in Beesleys Point, was not happy a decade ago when the bridge linking the township to Somers Point was closed.
People protested on the Beesleys Point Bridge in July 2004. They argued it was a key evacuation route during storms and important for businesses such as Innocente’s personal watercraft rental business on the Great Egg Harbor Bay.
Something has changed since 2004, however.
“They closed it to traffic and it’s actually made it very pleasant,” said Innocente, the owner of Beesleys Point SeaDoo.
The local bay beach, which is guarded in summer by the Upper Township Beach Patrol, is much quieter now, as is the outdoor waterfront deck at The Tuckahoe Inn. Innocente said the closing was inconvenient for customers coming from the north, who now must drive south on the Garden State Parkway to Roosevelt Boulevard, then work their way back north on Route 9. But, Innocente said, it has helped the area aesthetically even as the bridge further deteriorated.
Still, unfinished business remains. Now that a decision has been made not to restore the decaying bridge, it is time to remove what has become an eyesore. A construction crew was busy Thursday setting up cranes and other heavy equipment to begin the job that is expected to start Monday.
Demolition can’t be done quickly enough for John Cabe, of Egg Harbor Township, one of Innocente’s workers. He fished regularly on the bridge after it was closed to traffic and is excited about the plan to use a section of the span on the Atlantic County side to construct a fishing pier.
“It became a very popular spot. At first it was only a few people, but I’ve seen as many as 80 people fishing on it. A lot of people who don’t have boats were using it. The fishing was decent, and there was a whole lot of crabbing,” Cabe said.
Elected officials on both sides of the bay fought to keep the 4,829-foot bridge open. Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo called the upcoming demolition “a shame” because of the lost evacuation route, but he said in the end the area may actually get a boost in tourism.
Besides the new fishing pier, Palombo noted, the southbound span of the Garden State Parkway over the bay is being replaced and the new bridge will have a separate bicycle-pedestrian lane. It will be a first on a parkway bridge.
“That will open up an opportunity for people who do enjoy cycling. Now, to get to Somers Point, you have to be creative and go through Ocean City. The whole area will look a lot better with the new parkway bridge and fishing pier. It should help the merchants. I think it helps us from an aesthetic standpoint,” Palombo said.
One of the biggest concerns about closing the Beesleys Point Bridge was losing the route for emergency vehicles in a storm. Palombo said the new parkway bridge will have an extra wide shoulder that can be a turned into a third lane for this purpose.
“Our biggest concern was how to get rescue vehicles back that have transported people to the hospital when everything is clogged up,” Palombo said.
Preliminary plans call for a 10-foot-wide bike lane, separated from vehicular traffic by a barrier, to allow access between Cape May and Atlantic counties. It will also allow access to Drag Island and the new fishing pier. Access to the pier from Somers Point will be provided via Route 9. A portion of Route 9 will be redeveloped into a parking lot. Access from the township will be via Harbor Road with a parking area here as well.
Palombo said the bay area could resemble a Florida waterfront community with bikers, pedestrians, pier fishing and people arriving by boat for waterfront dining at places like the Tuckahoe Inn.
“We want to develop the bay,” said Palombo.
Somers Point Mayor Jack Glasser never had to worry about losing an evacuation route for his residents, since none would be heading south in a storm. Over the past decade, he said, they have become accustomed to using the parkway bridge instead of the Beesleys Point Bridge to access Cape May County.
Glasser said he is optimistic about the new bike lane and fishing pier. He said he is working on getting the roads leading up to the two areas more bike-friendly, and that there have been discussions with the state Department of Transportation and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority about these areas and improving bike access to the new Route 52 causeway into Ocean City.
The project to demolish the Beesleys Point Bridge was expected to begin Friday on the Atlantic County side but was delayed until Monday due to wind and tide conditions. It will not get to the Cape May County side of the drawbridge until September, at which time some will be sad to see a bridge that has stood since 1928 disappear.
“I’m upset they’re doing it. I would very much like to see it reopened,” said Beesleys Point resident Dee O’Donnell, who works as a hostess at the Tuckahoe Inn.
O’Donnell was against closing the bridge because she likes having another evacuation route, but she said it also brought business into the Tuckahoe Inn.
Long before the bridge was built there was a ferry service between Beesleys Point and Somers Point. No one doubts the area will survive, but it will be changing. Innocente said he awaits more details, especially on how the bridge removal will impact the ending of Route 9 at the water’s edge, but he stopped worrying about it years ago.
“I think the hit already came in 2004 when they closed it. I think this will be great for the fishermen,” Innocente said.
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