Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster was looking across the Townsends Inlet Bridge just a few days before Memorial Day weekend when he was flagged down by a resident driving a GMC pickup truck who had stopped in the middle of the road.
“Do you think we’ll get a new bridge before the year 2050?” the resident asked, pointing to Townsends Inlet. “You guys keep doing these studies that cost more than the bridges themselves.”
“That’s not true at all,” Foster said as the resident drove away.
That dialogue is representative of larger frustrations with the five bridges along Ocean Drive in Cape May County.
Built before or just after World War II with money from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, four of the bridges — Townsends Inlet, Grassy Sound, Corsons Inlet and Middle Thorofare — have outlived their projected lifespan and do not meet the needs of modern-day transportation.
The Federal Highway Administration classifies all four bridges as structurally deficient and functionally obsolete.
The solution isn’t as simple as just saying “replace the bridges.”
Commissioning studies, designing a bridge and applying for permits can take years and cost millions of dollars before construction ever begins.
Then there’s the hardest part of the project: securing funding.
Early estimates project replacing the Townsends Inlet Bridge could cost $180 million.
Replacing the Middle Thorofare Bridge, which connects Wildwood Crest and Cape May, and the road leading up to it could cost well over $100 million.
“We’re looking at many different ways to find funding for these projects,” Foster said. “We will pursue bonding, state money and federal money … but all of that takes time.”
In April, the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders approved an $88 million bond ordinance for capital improvements. But bonding can only go so far without significantly raising taxes.
Getting federal funding is also a challenge.
Jason Galanes, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, said New Jersey has to designate a construction project a priority before it can be eligible to receive federal funding.
Then, the Department of Transportation will give the state a lump sum of money for its eligible projects from two pots of money from a Federal Highway Bill, which is disbursed at the state’s choosing.
Simply put, the county has to fight for its share of funding.
“The hardest thing is that there are no earmarks anymore for transportation projects,” Galanes said, adding the county got $37 million in federal funding for the Garden State Parkway overpass project through specifically earmarked funds. “The infrastructure bill that was talked about by President Trump and others will also probably not happen this year, so it will be on whoever replaces (LoBiondo) to work with (the county).”
Galanes said getting large amounts of money for past projects — including $25 million for the Ocean City-Longport replacement bridge, $37 million for the parkway project and millions of dollars for the Route 52 causeway into Ocean City through the 2009 stimulus package — does not affect the county’s ability to secure federal money for future projects.
State funding is an option for the Ocean Drive bridges, Foster said, particularly with the gas tax replenishing the Transportation Trust Fund in 2016. But overall, state funding won’t come close to covering the costs of these projects, he said.
New Jersey also has some of the toughest environmental regulations in the nation, which can slow projects down. Protections for shorebirds and fish affect the work schedule on the Townsends Inlet Bridge during the late spring, summer and fall, Foster said.
The same is true for the other bridges.
Engineers estimate the replacement of the Middle Thorofare Bridge won’t be completed for six to 10 years.
Ocean Drive is the last of three exit routes from the Wildwoods that flood during a major storm. Over the years, the elevation of the road has sunk from 7.5 feet to 6 feet, which is much lower than the 11 feet required by the 100 year flood plain.
No timetable is available for the replacement of the Townsends Inlet Bridge. Foster said the Corsons Inlet and Grassy Sound bridges will be replaced well after the completion of the Townsends Inlet and Middle Thorofare bridges.
Until the replacement, millions of dollars will be spent on all four bridges to keep them safe for residents and visitors, Foster said.
Later this year, seven spans of the Townsends Inlet Bridge on the Avalon side will be replaced with new, 6-feet wider sections and new railing.
“We have to keep these bridges open or it could be devastating to the economy,” Foster said.
This spring, the Cape May County Bridge Commission officially launched E-ZPass on the Ocean Drive bridges. That project cost $500,000.
Pat Rosenello, chairman of the bridge commission, said the installation of E-ZPass does not mean the commission is not focused on replacing the bridges.
“We still have many years to go before the bridges are replaced,” he said. “Most of the E-ZPass technology is easily transferable and can be moved when new bridges are built.”