Rt 52 Bridges
Construction continues on the Route 52 causeway between Somers Point and Ocean City. Dale Gerhard

The state on Monday said it will speed construction on the Route 52 causeway to ensure four lanes of travel will be open this summer.

The entire project linking Somers Point and Ocean City also will be completed by Memorial Day 2012, five months ahead of the projected October completion date, under the contractor’s new timeline, the state Department of Transportation said.

“This agreement ... demonstrates that the Christie administration has listened to the concerns expressed by local residents, business owners and elected officials,” DOT Commissioner James Simpson said in a statement.

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Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian said keeping four lanes of travel open at the island’s busiest entrance would help protect the city’s tourism industry.

“We’re ecstatic. We’re pleased with the announcement. There have been a lot of people wanting to know what’s going on,” he said. “We’ll have two lanes of travel coming in and going out.”

Gillian said city employees who toured the site last week observed that the pace of construction has quickened with the improving weather.

“You can tell with construction how fast they’re going,” he said.

And with word that the project will be complete by Memorial Day 2012, the city has one less summer season to fret over.

“If they get it done sooner, it will help taxpayers,” Gillian said.

The $400 million project — the most expensive undertaken by the state — has been taking place in stages starting in 2006 under contractor George Harms Construction and now under a partnership called Route 52 Constructors of York, Pa.

Workers still must replace two drawbridges with fixed spans on both sides of the causeway.

The old causeway consisted of four low bridges. They will be replaced by two parallel spans providing two lanes of travel in each direction, breakdown lanes, and a bicycle and walking path.

Travelers going to Ocean City will use the nearly completed new bridge, while outbound traffic will continue to use the old bridges this summer, the state said.

DOT spokesman Joe Dee said work is expected to go quicker on the Somers Point side than it has gone in Ocean City, where the workspace is more congested.

As part of the project, the state replaced the MacArthur Boulevard circle in Somers Point with traffic signals. Contractors also are raising the elevation of Ninth Street in Ocean City to prevent flooding that routinely occurs during storms.

Ocean City Business Administrator Michael Dattilo said the news was welcome given the uncertainties surrounding the project. The state had been less than communicative over the project’s status, he said.

“We’ve all been really apprehensive about that,” Dattilo said. “We’ve had some concerns about the lack of communication in the last few months.”

Dattilo said the one downside of the state’s new plan is that commuters will have to contend with another summer of crossing the Ninth Street drawbridge, which has a tendency to expand in the summer heat and — once opened for boat traffic — sometimes refuses to close.

Typically, the city’s Fire Department or the state DOT have hosed down the bridge to cool the steel deck and reseat it so traffic can resume. Dattilo said that is a small inconvenience for the sake of four open lanes of traffic.

Dattilo announced the bridge changes during a meeting of Ocean City merchants Monday.

Paul Cunningham, owner of the P. Francis gift shop on the 700 block of Asbury Avenue, applauded the news.

“I think it’s very positive. I think my customers are glad for the progress on the bridge,” he said. “I haven’t heard too many complaints. They know the inconvenience is temporary.”

The state did not release details about the reworked contract with Route 52 Constructors. City officials said they did not know the details of the changes.

Under the old contract, the contractor was to receive a bonus of as much as $1 million if four lanes are reopened by May 15 or a penalty of as much as $2 million if the four lanes remain closed through mid-September.

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