Ah, the Jersey Shore. Sun. Fun. Traffic.
Every year, starting with Memorial Day weekend, major routes such as the Garden State Parkway and the causeways that link the mainland to barrier island resort towns become snarled with vehicles.
Road projects that officials promise will ease the gridlock could exacerbate congestion short-term, with ripped up asphalt and reduced speeds near Ocean City and Long Beach Island this summer.
"It might be a little ugly now, but when it's finished, drivers will really appreciate it. It'll be a better road," Joe Orlando, spokesman for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, said of the parkway-widening project. The authority oversees operation of the roadway, which runs parallel to the coast for much of its 172-mile length and is used by more than a million vehicles a day.
Work on a 17-mile stretch from south of Exit 81 at South Toms River to Exit 63 at Long Beach Island-Manahawkin will be suspended for the Memorial Day weekend, Orlando said.
Construction between Exit 48 at Port Republic-Smithville and Milepost 49, where a new bridge will be built over the Mullica River, also will be halted this weekend. The existing 56-year-old span is key in linking the southern Shore region to Burlington, Ocean, and Monmouth Counties and beyond.
A reduced speed of 45 m.p.h. will remain in effect in both areas this weekend due to temporary lane shifts and uneven pavements, Orlando said.
No parkway lane closures are anticipated this summer, he said. The project, whose first phase is expected to be finished by next spring, is part of a $1.1 billion plan to add a third lane for the 50 miles between Toms River and Somers Point.
"We have suspended construction over the holiday weekend, as we always do on all holiday weekends," Orlando said. "We want to do whatever we can to not add to any traffic problems."
Sharon Gordon, spokeswoman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the 44-mile Atlantic City Expressway, expressed a similar sentiment.
"We will limit the amount of construction that is occurring during peak travel times by suspending construction on all holiday weekends," Gordon said. The road connects the gambling resort with the Philadelphia region.
The transportation agency is in the midst of a $23.3 million project to add one lane - for a total of three - westbound on the expressway between Milepost 7.8, near the interchange with the Garden State Parkway, and Milepost 17.4. A third lane was added to the eastbound side at that location more than 20 years ago. Work is expected to be completed by early next year.
The interchange has long been a summer headache for homebound motorists as they exit the Garden State Parkway and merge onto the westbound expressway. The third lane will increase capacity, Gordon said.
The authority plans to keep all lanes open during the project, but Gordon said drivers may experience "gaper delay" as motorists slow down in the construction zones to get a look.
For those willing to pause on their beach-bound journeys Friday, Gordon said, the Transportation Authority will host its eighth annual Safety Awareness Day at the Frank S. Farley Service Plaza, located at Milepost 21.3 of the Atlantic City Expressway.
The event, from 3 to 6 p.m., will feature safety and travel exhibits, safety demonstrations, food and beverage samples, and various giveaways and contests.
Smoother sailing for motorists also is the idea behind a continuing $396 million project to replace the Route 52 causeway and bridges connecting Somers Point and Ocean City. The two old causeway spans are 1930s drawbridges that must be raised each time a boat passes beneath them. The rusty bridges often get stuck in the upright position - sometimes for hours - causing traffic to pile up for miles on each side of the Intracoastal Waterway.
A project to replace them with taller fixed spans began in October 2006. It also will do away with the infamous Somers Point circle and add a welcome center, bike trail, and fishing piers to the causeway.
Work on the 2.7-mile link, which is used by about 40,000 motorists a day in the summer, is expected to conclude by the end of 2012, according to Tim Greeley, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
The causeway is back to two lanes each way for the summer, after having been cut to one in some areas this year, Greeley said. Construction work also has been suspended for the holiday, he said.
"We want people to come to the Shore and have a good experience in getting there and getting home," said Gordon, of the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
"When these projects are completed, they will," she vowed. "Helping create an expedited way to get people to and from the region is why we do what we do."