After six years and a half-billion dollars, the Route 52 bridge project is substantially complete.
All four lanes are open, the fishing piers built, the visitor center finished. All that’s left is cleaning up after the monumental job.
“Constructionwise, you have a completed project there,” said Al Houser, project manager with Route 52 Constructors, the primary contractor. “We just have to get out of your way and let you have it.”
Crews are currently clearing out a staging area beneath the span on Garretts Island, the southernmost island of the three the bridge crosses, and restoring it to wetlands as they go.
That work was delayed by Hurricane Sandy, and should be completed by the end of January. Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Greeley said the only way to get to that area is through the visitor center driveway, so it will be closed to the public until the excavation work is done.
Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michele Gillian said her staff plans to move into the building in March.
All four lanes of the bridge opened in mid-May. That was the key milestone for most residents and motorists who had to deal with years of road construction and decades of congested traffic on the former bridge.
Work has continued in the seven months since, right up until the contract’s completion date of Dec. 15.
Over that time, contractors removed the rest of the 79-year-old former bridge, built two more fishing piers for a total of four, finished work on the two-story visitor center and completed renovating a parking lot and scenic overlook below the Somers Mansion in Somers Point.
“The Somers Mansion is a little jewel here,” Somers Point Administrator Wes Swain said. “The realignment makes it much more visible.”
Around the third week of December, the LED lights mounted beneath the bridge lit up for the first time, providing one of the final aesthetic touches to the span.
During the summer, there was an apparent problem with a large number of gulls getting hit by cars on one part of the bridge. Since then, a wire was installed on a short stretch of railing to keep gulls from landing there, and so far it has served its purpose, officials said.
One issue that remains is the speed limit. The posted speed limit on much of the bridge is 40 mph, but there was recent confusion in the Department of Transportation about the formal limit.
A local attorney raised the issue months ago and the DOT responded with a letter stating that the speed limit is actually 50 mph. Now the DOT’s position is that the old bridge’s speed limit of 35 mph carried over to the new span, but spokesman Joe Dee could not explain why there are 40 mph signs there.
Meanwhile, the Ocean City Police Department, which patrols most of the bridge, has issued at least 80 speeding tickets on the new bridge and maybe scores more based on the 40 mph speed limit, according to police records.
Police Chief Chad Callahan said the DOT’s position that the speed limit is really 35 mph “is news to me.”
In November, Ocean City Council approved a resolution supporting the DOT’s plan to officially change the speed limit to 45 mph for most of the bridge. That is expected to take effect sometime in January.
Lastly, but most importantly for many, is putting a final price tag on the project.
Engineers cite the construction cost as $400 million, with another $100 million in “soft costs,” which include money spent on planning, engineering and land acquisition.
However, it is not yet clear what the exact cost will be when any unanticipated costs are factored in, including items such as the gull deterrent, any costs from storm-related delays and settlements with landowners for land acquisitions that resulted in higher-than-proposed payouts.
Those details might not be known until the final elements of the bridge are completed in the next few months.
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