Motorists can expect delays at the bridge leading into Longport starting next month and lasting through May.
The span is used by nearly 8,000 vehicles per day between Longport and both mainland Atlantic County and Ocean City. Public outcry earlier this year led county officials to keep one lane of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge open during a $4.8 million rehabilitation project that's expected to keep the span open another 25 years.
Without it, officials say, the bridge eventually would need to close altogether.
Mayor Nick Russo said he expects delays to begin Sept. 8, although the county has authorized the contractor to begin alternating lanes immediately after Labor Day weekend.
"I know it's an inconvenience for many people, but public safety comes first," he said. "From what I understand, this bridge is in dire need of repair."
County Engineer Joseph D'Abundo said motorists should expect alternating lanes on a regular basis throughout the construction process, which is slated to be completed by the week before Memorial Day 2014. Residents got a sample of what's to come this month, when the bridge was reduced to one lane for four days as construction crews took measurements.
"We'll be giving a head's up every week, but if the contractor needs it, he needs it," he said.
D'Abundo said the repairs are urgent. If they aren't completed, the county would need to enforce a weight limit and, at some point, close the span.
"You don't want to postpone this type of work," he said.
The Federal Highway Administration's National Bridge Inventory shows inspectors in 2011 gave the bridge, built in 1963, a sufficiency rating of 55. Although the foundations were found to be stable, they cited "fair" conditions for all three major bridge components: the deck, substructure and superstructure.
D'Abundo said the project includes replacing many steel supports and resurfacing the deck, largely due to the salt environment. Once completed, he said, the two-lane bridge will have the same footprint. Driscoll Construction is completing the work with funds from the state Department of Transportation.
Originally, the plan called for closing the road to emergency vehicles for more than three months and to general traffic through April. In February, after meetings with local officials and residents, the county announced a plan to keep at least one lane open at all times during construction.
The 1,300-foot span accommodates an average of 7,740 vehicles per day, according to the 2011 data. If it closed, those vehicles would be detoured 12 miles to the Downbeach Express toll road between Margate and Northfield, or 18 miles through Ventnor.
Construction may affect some boaters with larger vessels. D'Abundo said clearance at the bridge is expected to be reduced by five feet to accommodate work platforms.
"If that's an issue to the boaters, they need to use the main channel for the inland waterway at the Dolores Cooper Bridge," he said.
That Egg Harbor Township bridge is about 1.6 miles west of the Longport bridge.
Kenny Weinstock, 34, of Somers Point, who uses the bridge regularly for work as a home health aid, said no one he knows is looking forward to the delays.
"It's just one of those things you can't control, like global warming or the end of summer," he said. "I'll just have to leave the house a little earlier."
Mike Cohen, a historian and former Longport mayor, said the first bridge was built there in 1914, part of a series of so-called "rickety" bridges built over the marshland. The 1963 bridge that replaced it marked a major improvement, he said.
"This bridge is a godsend," he said. "We never thought much of a bridge - it was just there - but it's been a lifeline since then."
News of its planned closing this year mobilized the communities at both ends of the thoroughfare. Cohen said the compromise, even if it includes a longer wait, is a good one.
"It's going to be a pain in the neck, but at least it's bearable," he said.
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