LOWER TOWNSHIP — Cape May County was presented with eight potential replacement plans for the Middle Thorofare Bridge on Thursday, although construction of any new structure is still six to seven years away.

The replacement plans, presented by engineering firm Michael Baker International during a public forum, include reconstruction of Ocean Dive exiting Wildwood Crest and replacement of the smaller Upper Thorofare and Mill Creek bridges, all of which connect Cape May with Wildwood Crest.

The three bridges were built in 1939 with an expected service life of 75 years.

Now, the Upper Thorofare is classified as structurally deficient by federal standards. The Mill Creek Bridge is considered functionally obsolete, and the Middle Thorofare span is considered functionally obsolete.

But just because they don’t conform to current codes does not mean they are unsafe, engineers and county officials say.

The county will continue to do routine maintenance and repairs to the bridges until new ones are built.

The options for the project range in price from about $237 million to $269 million and call for a new Middle Thorofare Bridge that will be either 45 feet or 80 feet tall.

If the county decides to build a bridge that is 45 feet tall, it will need to have a movable span that opens for large boats.

If an 80-foot-tall bridge is built, there would be no movable spans and traffic would be able to flow constantly over it like the Route 52 causeway entering Ocean City.

The current Middle Thorofare Bridge, at its highest point, is about 23 feet tall, engineers said. If the county built a 45-foot bridge with a movable span, the number of times it would have to be raised would be 60 percent less often than the current bridge, which gets raised anywhere between 5,200 and 5,600 times a year, said Joseph Romano, chief bridge engineer for the Northeast Region at Michael Baker International.

“About three (boats) a year hit the Middle Thorofare Bridge in an accident,” Romano said. “Any one of these options would be a great improvement and help prevent that.”

The options call for the new bridge to be built next to the current one or on the other side of the Middle Thorofare.

Depending on which option the county chooses, Ocean Drive connecting Wildwood Crest and Cape May could be closed for several months during construction.

Martin Wade, senior associate for transportation planning and engineering at Michael Baker, said the new Middle Thorofare Bridge will still have a toll and will be one lane in each direction.

However, the new bridge will be able to withstand much heavier vehicles. Currently, tractor-trailers, school buses and firetrucks cannot cross the bridge because they are too heavy.

“Public input in this project is very important,” Wade said. “Having people comment on the possible options could really have an effect on what option the county chooses, so we encourage everyone to get involved.”

Nearly 20 years ago, a different plan was in place to rehabilitate all of Ocean Drive between Wildwood Crest and Cape May, but the plans fell through because of ownership issues with the land and the federal money expiring, according to previous press reports.

Ocean Drive is the last of three exit routes from the Wildwoods that flood during a major storm. Over the years, however, the elevation of the road has sunk from 7.5 feet to 6 feet, which is much lower than the 11 feet required.

If a major storm occurs, such as Hurricane Sandy or Winter Storm Jonas, the county automatically sends engineers to inspect the bridges to make sure they are safe.

Joe Orlando, a 31-year-resident of Diamond Beach in Lower Township, attended the meeting with his wife, Hilda, on Thursday.

He said he has been hearing about the possibility of a new Middle Thorofare Bridge since they moved to the township in 1987 and is glad to finally see steps to replace it.

“I think the 80-foot alternative is the best option,” Orlando said. “We live in Lower Township, but we are served by Wildwood Crest first responders because trucks can’t get over the current bridge. … I think this will be good overall because the current bridge looks terrible.”

Contact: 609-272-7260 JDeRosier@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressDeRosier

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