Route 72 projectRoadway dangerTake an 18-mile-long island of more than 20 communities with a population that can swell to 250,000 in the summer. Arrange things so there is only one road on or off the island, and make sure this road travels over a series of obsolete bridges. Then add a project to replace those bridges.

You get the idea. The rebuilding of Route 72, which crosses Manahawkin Bay to connect Long Beach Island to the mainland in Stafford Township, was always going to be a traffic nightmare. How could it not be?

The question many Ocean County residents and visitors are asking themselves now is: Does it have to be this much of a nightmare?

Local officials are joining motorists in calling the new traffic pattern narrow, confusing and dangerous. Anecdotal evidence suggests an increase in traffic accidents in the construction zone.

The 3-mile-long Route 72 causeway is one of the busiest roads in the area, especially on a summer weekend. A seven-year, $350 million project will replace the 1958 roadway and its bridges. The first phase, to build a new bridge parallel to the causeway, is under way.

And it's July. So a stretch that was never an easy drive has become a real challenge.

The Department of Transportation has committed itself to keeping four lanes of traffic open during construction. When the project is finished, traffic will move on separate eastbound and westbound spans, with wide shoulders and parking areas along the bay.

In the meantime, DOT officials say that they've heard the complaints and that the construction zone is as safe as they can make it. It's a familiar tune. Whenever motorists complain about a road construction project, the DOT's first answer is that everything is fine. Then elected officials put on a little pressure, and eventually engineers find ways to improve the situation.

It would be nice if the DOT could cut to the chase and take another look at causeway traffic patterns now. Surely there's something that can be done to make things safer and less confusing.

Even if that happens, driving the causeway during construction will still be a challenge. Ultimately, safety depends on the people driving the roadway.

So, if you travel to and from LBI, be aware that things are a little hairy. Slow down, give other drivers a break - and try to be patient.

Long Beach Island is a beautiful place. It's worth the inconvenience of getting there. And creating a new, safer causeway is worth the inconvenience of construction.

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