VENTNOR - A city divided against itself cannot stand. Or at least it gets really annoyed.
That has been the situation facing Ventnor for the past two and a half months, as structural work on the Dorset Avenue Bridge - the lifeline connecting Ventnor Heights with Ventnor City - has cut off vehicle access from one end to the other since Feb. 4. Even emergency vehicles, for the most part, have been unable to drive across the drawbridge since March.
But after weeks of separation, the two sides of Ventnor are once again reattached. The bridge reopened to routine traffic Sunday.
"I'm just delighted," Mayor Theresa Kelly said. "And if you saw the heavy traffic on Albany Avenue, I'm sure Atlantic City's going to be delighted, too."
Ventnor residents have become more familiar than they'd like with Albany Avenue in Atlantic City, which is currently the closest way of driving from one end of the city to the other - or, like Kelly and many others, to get from home to the PathMark supermarket in Ventnor Heights.
Atlantic City police Sgt. Bill McKnight, head of the department's Traffic Unit, said there has been an increase in crashes along that stretch of road directly related to the increased volume.
"Nothing serious, but the numbers were up," McKnight said. "You look at the map, and there's a lot of red dots between West End (Avenue) and Ventnor (Avenue). That's definitely going to go down."
For some residents, dealing with the bridge work means making a decision: Just how important is the morning routine? For example, Jeff Pasco -who lives just across the Ventnor border in Atlantic City - has had to make quite a journey to reach his favorite eatery.
"You got to go all the way up Atlantic (Avenue), up Albany, up Wellington (Avenue) and down Dorset," said Pasco, enjoying his breakfast at Annette's Restaurant in Ventnor Heights, just a block from the bridge."What should be a five-minute ride for us becomes 25 minutes. Good thing they have such a good breakfast here."
Scott Busch, owner of the PC Medic computer repair store in Ventnor Heights, said that during rush hour, it often takes 45 minutes to drive from one side of the bridge to the other - "And God forbid you got to go to Margate."
There is one saving grace, however - the bridge has been open to foot and bicycle traffic, meaning that anyone who wants to get out for a stroll can easily navigate between the two sides of the Inside Thorofare waterway. Beyond that, however, you're on your own.
Busch, like many others in the city, has parked one car on either side of the bridge - although in his business, that often means walking across the bridge with a computer in his arms.
"I once walked across the bridge carrying two computers," he said. "Then I realized I forgot my keys."
Mike and Lori Focoso have a number of options for getting their 3-year-old twins from their home in Ventnor Heights to their school in Ventnor City - "We have to either drive them all the way, leave the car on this side or leave the car on the other side," Mike Focoso said - but on Wednesday they decided to take a stroll, the twins enjoying the trip in a stroller.
"If it's nice, we walk the kids," Lori said. "Now that it's nice, everything seems OK. When it was bad was when it snowed" - no access across the bridge in one direction, flooded roads along the other - "We were kind of caught, stuck there until the tide went down. It was pretty bad."
With all the trouble it takes to make what was once a quick trip across the bridge, businesses on both sides certainly felt the pinch.
At Shelly's Breakfast Cafe in Ventnor City, owner Shelly Trivisonno said the effects were obvious.
"Look outside," she said, pointing to Ventnor Avenue. "You can park anywhere you want, and you don't hear anything driving by. I can't wait for the bridge to open."
Back at Annette's Restaurant in Ventnor Heights, owner Cheryl Venezia was slightly more charitable.
"It affected us a little bit, but not a lot," Venezia said. "Our customers are very loyal, and a lot of them walk across the bridge. We get a lot of bridge (workers) in here, and they were terrific. My Atlantic City cops still come over. ... It really wasn't terrible."
Up on the bridge, project superintendent Bob Wagner was overseeing the last few days of above-roadway work - work under the bridge continues until May 1.
"We're just removing all the jacking equipment, preparing the road deck and a lot of miscellaneous steelwork," Wagner said. "We took the counterweight out - it weighed 230 tons - and changed all the shafts and bearings. ... She was in pretty bad shape, let's put it that way."
Atlantic County Engineer Joseph D'Abundo said that the work continuing until May is "a lot more minor and can be completed with the bridge open. They may put up cones to shift traffic, but that should not interfere with normal bridge traffic."
D'Abundo praised the contractors, A.P. Construction, for getting the work in just one day late after dealing with two months of snow, wind and inclement weather. The final phase of the $3.5 million county project, however, is yet to come.
"The painting of the bridge may not take place until next year," D'Abundo said. "They have to sandblast the bridge because it's still lead-based paint and they have to capture (all) of it. ... But the contractor is working with the county to extend the contract time and shorten the time the bridge is actually closed."
Until then, Ventnor residents should keep their walking shoes.
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