MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — On Wednesday morning at Steve’s Café 47 at 189 Delsea Drive, the coffee was hot, the eggs fresh. Edward Kaye sat at a booth near the door, enjoying the food and the music as an acoustic trio finished “Wabash Cannonball” and began “May the Circle Be Unbroken.”
“I’m here every Wednesday. Never fail,” Kaye said. “It’s like a family in here.”
Each Wednesday morning, the Café 47 Band performs, running through a repertoire of country hits and others, including some Tom Petty numbers, said guitarist Martin Kozak. The band raises money for the Make-A-Wish foundation, collecting more than $26,000 over the years.
Outside, the parking lot was packed with cars, and most booths were filled at the small diner. Every one of the customers had to edge around a “Road Closed” sign at Indian Trail Road to get there.
For a small businesses like Steve’s Café, margins are slim. So owner Steve Oliver is not looking forward to having the road leading past the restaurant closed until late spring.
Starting Monday, Jan. 20, the New Jersey Department of Transportation shut down a stretch of Route 47, also known as Delsea Drive, to fix sinkholes around the culverts where the road crosses Dias Creek, the narrow waterway that gives this section of Middle Township its name.
A statement from the DOT describes the repairs as a priority, stating the sinkholes at Dias Creek were compromising the safety of the roadway.
DOT officials said the work should be completed by June. Cars will be able to reach homes and local businesses throughout the project, but through traffic will be detoured at Indian Trail Road and Hand Avenue all the way out to Route 9.
The first day of the closure, business at the café was down $100 compared with the same day last year, Oliver said Tuesday, Jan. 21.
“Today we had a little more of the regulars in, but we’re not getting any strangers,” he said. He posted something on the business’ Facebook page, and said Middle Township has also given notice that businesses will remain open, but he’s worried about the loss of passing traffic that helps keep his business going. He said the first day, crews placing the road closure sign and detour notification at Indian Trail Road did not leave enough room for local traffic to get around the cones. A hand-drawn cardboard sign lets drivers know the café is open.
“All the businesses that rely on traffic flowing by on 47 are going to take a hit from this,” said Middle Township Mayor Tim Donohue. He said Oliver’s café has a loyal following, regulars who will go out of their way to get there. But Donohue fears the project taking longer than expected, dragging through June and possibly into July.
At the Jan. 22 Township Committee meeting, DOT officials expressed confidence the project would be completed on time. Vanessa Meades, a government and communications specialist handling shore towns for the DOT, told residents and officials at the evening meeting that the road reached the point where it could no longer safely support traffic. She showed an image of a three-foot sinkhole and described cracks running the width of the road.
“We had significant safety issues on Route 47 where it crosses Dias Creek,” Meades said.
The culvert pipes that allow the creek to flow under the road have become separated, allowing water to erode under the road. The roadway will be removed and the culverts replaced in the coming months. Officials said the project could be completed ahead of schedule, saying the department would rather overperform than overpromise.
“We understand how important this road is to you. We understand how important it is to the region,” Meades said. “We did not want to close this road. Unfortunately it was our only option.”
The 75-mile road gets its name because it leads from Brooklawn in Camden County to Wildwood, connecting the Delaware River to the sea. On summer weekends, the stretch along the west side of Cape May County sees intense traffic jams.
Donohue has concerns about the impact of the project on traffic and businesses. Even the businesses outside of the work area will see an impact, he said, as drivers avoid the area and fewer will stop at convenience stores or other retailers near the work zone.
“This isn’t just one piece of Middle Township. This is a ripple effect on the whole economy of Cape May County,” Donohue said.
He said there is never a good time to close a major road, but questioned why the repairs were not started in the fall, saying crews have been working on the sinkholes for months, but the matter has suddenly become very urgent. He said he has concerns about the timing of this project, concerns he said he expressed in a conference call with the DOT and township department heads on Friday morning.
“They were not very flexible. They were apologetic but not very flexible,” he said. Donohue wanted to at least delay the work until after a planned rally attended by President Trump in Wildwood on Tuesday, Jan. 28, one that media reports have indicated could draw 100,000 people.
“That’s a summer weekend,” Donohue said. DOT officials responded that any delay would push the work later into the summer.
Donohue added he has already heard conspiracy theories, proposing that the work is a new version of Bridgegate, in which Gov. Chris Christie’s administration created traffic problems in Fort Lee in 2013, allegedly as political payback. In this conspiracy theory, Democrats in Trenton have closed the road in order to suppress turnout for the Trump rally.
“I don’t really buy into that. Trenton can’t get anything done that quickly,” Donohue said.
DOT spokesman Steve Schapiro said the project was planned before the rally was announced.
But Donohue is frustrated just the same. He said the DOT had not notified the township Board of Education of the closure, and he has concerns about the detour plan, which he believes will increase traffic onto Hand Avenue and onto Route 9, where the road is narrow and there is no traffic light.
“That’s a tough turn to make on a normal day,” he said.
On Wednesday, the detour for southbound traffic was at Springers Mill Road rather than Hand Avenue, closer to the bridge where the repairs were taking place. The creek passes under the roadway through two wide metal culverts. Donohue said DOT officials told him those culverts must be replaced, and the only effective way to do that is to cut through the road and remove them.
Donohue wanted at least one lane of the road to remain open at a time through the project, but was told that was not possible. Otherwise, he suggested posting signs well before the detour, rerouting shore traffic onto Route 83 to the north or presenting drivers with other options.
“We wanted to pour as much traffic off as we could before we get to Hand Avenue,” he said.
The DOT has agreed to additional detour signs, moving more traffic off the road before it reaches the detour.