CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The Sea Isle City Taxpayers Association usually tries to reduce taxes, but on Tuesday they asked Cape May County to spend more than $500 million.

The group is very concerned about the condition of four bridges along Ocean Drive and wants the Board of Chosen Freeholders to replace them. They are willing to pay higher taxes to make this happen.

“It’s probably the only time the Sea Isle City Taxpayers Association has asked for a tax increase. The No. 1 reason is safety, safety, safety,” said Joe McDevitt, a spokesman for the group.

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McDevitt cited a fire earlier this year that destroyed three condominiums on the beachfront and the fire trucks could not cross the bridge at Townsends Inlet, which links Avalon and Sea Isle City. New Jersey Transit buses are too heavy to cross several of the bridges.

The group brought a number of charts that showed the $500 million, paid over a 30-year bond, would cost the average taxpayer just 98 cents per day.

“Its one dollar a day per household,” said Jim Malloy of the SICTA. “If you don’t do it, what is it going to cost?”

The group argues the time is right with low interest rates, cheap energy costs, and a relatively small inflation rate. It would reduce annual repair costs and boost tourism if the new spans include fishing piers, bicycle lanes, jogging paths and other improvements. They note it would also reduce down time when the bridges have to be closed.

“We’re having nuisance closings due to high tide, which is relatively new,” said McDevitt.

Freeholder Director Jerry Thornton directed Treasurer Francine Springer to look into the data provided by the group but no promises were made. He said $500 million would have a huge impact on the county budget. Springer said the state would have to approve a tax increase this high.

“I’m not saying you’re wrong. Most of these bridges were built in 1935 and 1936 and they are deteriorating. I like what you’re saying but we can’t even get close to affording that,” said Thornton.

He also criticized the federal government. The county applied for federal stimulus (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) money several years ago to replace the Middle Thorofare Bridge, which links Lower Township to the Wildwoods. Its condition has become a major problem for the Port of Cape May fishing industry.

A study showed the project would have boosted the Port of Cape May fishing industry by $7 million a year, including adding 55 new jobs. It also would have helped the region’s $100 million-a-year sand-mining industry while allowing cruise ships to come to Cape May, possibly jump-starting a new tourist industry. It was rejected.

“They should have put that $780 billion in stimulus into roads and bridges and instead they gave it to their friends on Wall Street,” said Thornton.

Actually, Foster said the Middle Thorofare project lost out to a pedestrian bridge in Camden.

The group wants four bridges replaced, including the ones at Townsends Inlet, Corsons Inlet, Grassy Sound and Middle Thorofare.

“The economy is right now,” said McDevitt.

The county is investing some repair money into several of the bridges with upgrades of about $5 million each for Grassy Sound and Townsend’s Inlet spans. Foster noted the bridges were never designed for the weight of modern fire engines, which are larger than ones in the 1930s and barely fit through the toll booths.

Foster also noted that the county dotted with waterways has a lot of other bridges in need of attention.

A secondary problem is the state’s Transportation Trust Fund is almost out of money due in part to New Jersey having among the highest costs in the nation for such infrastructure work.

“The Transportation Trust Fund is close to being insolvent,” said Freeholder Kristine Gabor.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

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35 years with The Press of Atlantic City, the Asbury Park Press and other newspapers.

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