STAFFORD TOWNSHIP - "It's a mess. The roadway is tight and narrow. It's absolutely confusing," Mayor John Spodofora said of the new traffic pattern along a stretch of Route 72.
Construction on the long-awaited $350 million bridge-replacement project on the Route 72 Manahawkin Bay bridges began in May, with the first phase, a $90 million project, set to build a new bridge parallel to the existing span over the bay.
The entire project will replace a 53-year-old, 3-mile-long causeway structure - one that's been deemed structurally deficient and functionally obsolete - that connects Stafford Township to Long Beach Island.
The first phase is expected to be completed by 2016, while the entire project won't be finished until 2020.
Meanwhile, the new traffic pattern is already confusing motorists and angering local officials.
"It is a mess, and I live down here and drive it every day. I could see if someone just for a few seconds wasn't paying attention on that road they'd find themselves in a bad spot," Spodofora said.
Stafford Township police Capt. Thomas Dellane said the department has investigated five motor vehicle accidents in the area of the causeway bridges since June 1, with four of them occurring between June 22 and 28.
All of the accidents are in the area were where the roadway was reconfigured, with the exception of one accident involving a parked construction vehicle near the first bridge past Marsha Drive, Dellane said.
In one accident, the driver blamed the new road configuration, but he was charged with DWI, Dellane said.
Otherwise, it appears that all of the accidents resulted from some form of driver inattention, Dellane said.
"That section does experience an increase in accidents during the summer months. This is primarily due to the fact that the traffic volume increases exponentially during that time when compared to the rest of the year," he said.
Traffic along the Route 72 Causeway swells during the summer as the population on Long Beach Island increases from roughly 7,500 in the winter to 250,000.
The Route 72 Causeway is the only roadway they can take to the island.
"There's is no question our police department gets busier in the summer time. They have electric billboards up, alerting drivers to the changes, and I'm not sure what else can be done, but something has to happen. It does concern me that this cluster of accidents is happening all in the same area," Spodofora said.
Slow-moving vehicles, start-and-stop traffic, and reduced lane widths all make for a dangerous situation, and drivers need to focus. Spodofora urged motorists to to obey posted speed limit and stay off their cellphones.
Ship Bottom Mayor William Huelsenbeck said those arriving on Long Beach Island have expressed concerns about the new traffic configuration.
"I had some experience this weekend with people calling me from all areas of the island about the Jersey barriers that are set up on the bridge that were causing puddling on the roadway while it was that torrential downpour." Huelsenbeck said. "Drivers said they were holding on for dear life as they tried to cross the bridge."
Huelsenbeck said he called the Stafford Police Department this past weekend to alert them to complaints he received from motorists alleging unsafe and flooded road conditions on the bridge.
One part of the new traffic pattern, where a turning lane has been added for drivers to complete a U-turn, has Huelsenbeck concerned about the potential for a head-on collision.
DOT spokesman Timothy Greeley, in an email response, said the new traffic patterns will remain until the new parallel bridge is completed in January 2016.
Greeley said Stafford Township officials have not contacted the DOT about safety concerns with the new Route 72 traffic pattern setup.
DOT on-site field staff have established an open line of communication with the Stafford traffic safety officers, Greeley added.
Shortly after the traffic pattern change was implemented June 26, DOT and Federal Highway Administration traffic control safety personnel conducted a field inspection and made some minor modifications regarding sign placement and construction barrel and cone placement, he said.
"When a new traffic pattern is put in place, it is natural to expect that it takes some time for motorists to get used to the new pattern," Greeley said. "With driver familiarity of the new pattern, this will occur and the highway will operate more efficiently."
Meanwhile, Spodofora said, he will ask the state Department of Transportation to evaluate the new configuration. He's also asking the Stafford Police Department to write a letter to the agency about the roadway.
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