Cape May County has several barrier islands and lots of wetlands, so it has many bridges. Those in the Ocean Drive bridge system have been operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission, an anachronism in government.
Unfortunately, for decades the bridge commission was better at providing positions for local officials than maintaining its bridges. The tolls didn’t cover the full costs of maintenance, let alone prepare to help in their eventual replacement.
In 1990, county government took over the commission’s three Ocean Drive bridges that don’t charge a toll. It left the others with the commission so tolls could still be charged.
For a decade now the bridges have been failing, causing temporary closings and handwringing over the daunting cost of replacing them. Any day now the Townsends Inlet Bridge between Sea Isle City and Avalon, for example, will close again — this time for eight months — for a stopgap repair that will replace 20 percent of the structure.
But the span that poses the biggest challenge to the county is the Middle Thorofare Bridge across an inlet in Lower Township between the Wildwoods and Cape May. The bridge is too small and weak, a bottleneck that is restraining Cape May Harbor’s commercial growth.
A bridge that allowed wider ships beneath it and heavier trucks across it would allow local industries to tap new markets. Fish could be shipped directly overseas and boats from elsewhere could unload in Cape May Harbor. Sand and gravel currently shipped by truck could be sent far more cheaply by barge. And with some additional dredging, cruise ships could dock in Cape May, adding a new facet to tourism.
As it happens, the bottleneck would also disappear if the 1939 bridge were simply removed instead of replaced and two much smaller and cheaper access road bridges were upgraded. The road isn’t the main entrance to any shore town, but driving around would be an inconvenience and probably hurt a small number of local businesses.
Late last month the county heard options for a new bridge from an engineering firm. The cost is much like the last time a replacement was contemplated — from $237 million to $269 million.
About a decade ago during the severe recession, the county hoped to get some federal stimulus funds for the project.
But instead, $400 million went to the replacement of the causeway and two bridges into Ocean City, which has about five times as much vehicular traffic as the Middle Thorofare Bridge and is the main entrance to America’s Greatest Family Resort.
Before that, there was a proposal for Cape May County to bond $500 million to do the needed replacements and repairs on the Ocean Drive bridges. That would have cost county taxpayers about $360 a year each for many years, an amount the freeholders decided was too much.
Even with another increase in its gasoline tax, New Jersey can’t keep up with its transportation maintenance and projects, so help from the state seems like a long shot as well.
The Ocean Drive toll bridges don’t have high traffic levels and are too easily avoided for much higher tolls on them to provide significant funding.
We hate to say it, but we don’t see a good choice regarding the Middle Thorofare Bridge. Don’t be surprised if the bridges just continued to be maintained enough for years in hope that a better choice becomes available.