UPPER TOWNSHIP - The Corsons Inlet toll bridge is one of 20 Cape May County bridges that are old, outdated and in need of extensive repairs or even replacement, a Press of Atlantic City review of state bridge inspection reports revealed Wednesday.

Two Ocean City High School students amazingly escaped serious injury Tuesday when their Ford Expedition hopped a high curb, slammed through a light pole and the safety gate's electric box and dropped 30 feet off the Corsons Inlet bridge into the icy bay.

The bridge railings that did not stop the vehicle from plunging off the span are more than 62 years old. Even if they were not rusted out - and they are - the railings weren't designed to stop a car, the Cape May County engineer said.

But replacing just the Corsons Inlet bridge alone could cost $39 million, money neither the county nor the county's bridge commission has to spend. And replacing just the six Ocean Drive bridges that connect Cape May County's barrier islands could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster.

Now the county and the Cape May County Bridge Commission are facing public criticism about the dilapidated condition of the Corsons Inlet Bridge and about 20 others.

The bridge is structurally deficient, according to a 2007 inspection report, with the overall superstructure of the bridge rated as poor. Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster said the bridge, which cannot support modern traffic loads, is also functionally obsolete because its lanes are too narrow and has no breakdown lanes, among other problems.

Sea Isle City fraternal twins Michael and Nicole Crudele, 18, were taken to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Division. They both suffered cuts and bruises in the accident, but Nicole Crudele also sustained a concussion, their mother, Maria Crudele, said.

"I'm extremely thankful my children are all right," she said. "Luckily, they only had bumps and bruises. My daughter is still at the hospital but she's expected to come home tonight or tomorrow."

The two siblings were able to escape the sinking truck and swim to the surface. They did not want to talk about their ordeal, their mother said. State Police in Woodbine on Wednesday said the cause of the accident remains under investigation.

The Bridge Commission spent $3.4 million between 2006 and 2008 in repairs on Corsons Inlet bridge after inspections forced the county to impose weight restrictions, which have since been lifted, O'Connor said. The bridge is important for many reasons - not the least of which is evacuation during a storm - but also for use by firetrucks or ambulances in nearby Ocean City during an emergency.

Railings original

But for most motorists, the most obvious sign of the bridge's aged state are the rusty and withered railings, which the Crudeles' truck tore through like aluminum foil.

"We're getting a lot of criticism regarding the condition of the railing there," Foster said.

The railings were cited in the most recent inspection report on the bridge with a notation that they did not meet currently accepted standards or were missing a required safety feature.

The Bridge Commission has been planning to repair the railings for five years, county Administrator and Bridge Commission President Stephen O'Connor said. The commission rejected bids in November after the lowest bid came in at $3.5 million, $1 million more than the commission budgeted for the replacement.

The commission plans to rebid the project this month. Meanwhile, the Corsons Inlet Bridge will remain closed for repairs through the weekend, Foster said.

The railings, rusted to oblivion in places, are original to the bridge, which was under construction in 1947 and completed a year later. They were designed for the safety of fishermen who fished off the span, not vehicles that might hit them, Foster said.

"Nothing on the construction plans suggests the railing was designed for any type of impact," Foster said. "We would never put back that type of railing. You want something smooth so a vehicle would not snag on it."

Modern bridge railings the county plans to install on the Corsons Inlet Bridge are smooth, tubular steel designed to withstand a car's impact and redirect the energy sideways down the length of the bridge.

The Corsons Inlet Bridge, like others on Ocean Drive, features a high curb that normally deflects any vehicles that might stray from the narrow lane, Foster said.

"All the four lower bridges have high curbs. Based on the design of cars, it's difficult for a car to bump up on top of that curb," he said. "That's prevented a lot of accidents."

Troubled bridges

Four of the commission's five bridges are considered structurally deficient, according to U.S. Department of Transportation records. This includes the Middle Thorofare Bridge in Lower Township, the Grassy Sound Bridge connecting North Wildwood and Stone Harbor and the Townsends Inlet Bridge between Avalon and Sea Isle City. The Ocean City-Longport Bridge was rebuilt in 2002.

Most of Cape May County's Ocean Drive bridges were built before the advent of the Garden State Parkway. They were launched in the 1930s under the post-Depression New Deal to employ local labor, a government initiative similar to the recent American Reinvestment and Recovery Act that has also funneled billions into road and bridge projects.

The Bridge Commission is spending $4 million in federal stimulus money this year to make structural repairs to the Grassy Sound and Townsends Inlet bridges.

The Corsons Inlet Bridge was the most recent of the bridges to be built and had what was considered at the time state-of-the-art features such as a modern drawbridge operator's house and elevated "safety" sidewalks designed to keep pedestrians out of harm's way.

The bridges undergo a full inspection every two years and a structural inspection annually, O'Connor said. The final 2009 inspection report is still being drafted but the county conducted emergency repairs after the preliminary inspections identified spalling on the concrete piers.

The 2007 inspection report, finalized last year by Gibson Associates, termed the overall condition of the bridge poor. The estimated cost to replaced the bridge: $39 million.

Gibson said the railings were in failed condition or subject to imminent failure. Replacing the railings with state-approved ones was the first of 14 suggestions in the report.

But the Corsons Inlet Bridge is just one of four that need an estimated $34 million total in repairs, Foster said.

"It's been an issue the commission has been wrestling with for years. Toll revenues don't cover the costs, even if you took all the tolls generated at the bridge," Foster said.

The Bridge Commission raised $3.3 million in tolls in 2010 and spent $2.9 million on operations. But with debt service of $1.1 million, the commission finished the year with a $700,000 loss, O'Connor said.

The Corsons Inlet Bridge is the fourth-busiest of the five bridges, raising $450,000 in tolls.

O'Connor said the only hope is for federal funding like the $78 million that paid for the construction of the commission's Ocean City-Longport Bridge in 2002.

Construction costs put these projects out of reach for both the county and the Bridge Commission, O'Connor said. Replacing the Middle Thorofare Bridge in Lower Township would cost an estimate $300 million.

"The bridges will never be replaced without a federal program," O'Connor said. "The only way we can maintain the integrity of the bridge is with county support."

Contact Michael Miller:

609-463-6712