OCEAN CITY, N.J. - As Memorial Day weekend bears down on this popular Cape May County resort, where the population increases tenfold on summer weekends, the highlight of the tourist season may already have occurred.
The Route 52 Causeway, that once-dreaded stretch of stressful driving between here and Somers Point, is fully reopened, with wider lanes, no drawbridges, and a full-length bicycle and hiking path.
All four lanes of the 2.8-mile north-south route - two in each direction - were back in business this week, marking the near-conclusion of the six-year, $396 million Department of Transportation rebuilding project.
The official ribbon-cutting is set for next week, just before the onslaught of holiday traffic, according to Transportation Department spokesman Timothy Greeley.
But state and tourism officials are already exultant, calling the project an example of how a road can be so much more than a means of getting from point A to point B.
The opening "fulfills a promise made to local residents and business owners to restore full capacity of the important roadway prior to Memorial Day," Greeley said. Quick work, due partly to good weather, shaved five months off the construction schedule.
In recent days, crews have been painting lines, installing signs, and generally putting on the finishing touches. And drivers have had a chance to ride the road, including two bridges, that curves and flows like a magic carpet over the sounds and bay and little islets that separate the barrier island from the mainland.
Traffic-flow issues also are being ironed out with installation of permanent stoplights at either end of the causeway - at Route 9 and Mays Landing Road in Somers Point and at Ninth Street and Bay Avenue in Ocean City - Greeley said. About 40,000 cars will use the causeway on a typical summer day, officials estimated.
Drivers will no longer have to contend with the traffic circle at the foot of the bridge in Somers Point. Nor must they fear the two ancient drawbridges that snarled traffic - sometimes for hours - when they got stuck in the upright position after opening for marine traffic. The new fixed spans provide 55 feet of clearance for boats, officials said.
Without a center median, the old artery was the site of frequent head-on collisions, some fatal. The new road is divided, and sometimes split. Because of the improvements, the speed limit has been increased to 40 m.p.h., DOT officials said.
The road planners, who began their design work a decade ago, realized the area's natural assets and potential: wetlands that are sanctuaries for nesting birds and aquatic species; prime bay access for boaters, kayakers, and fishers; and the perfect place to build an attractive tourist welcome center.
For the first time, bikers and hikers will be able to use Route 52 as a path between the mainland and the Shore. A walkway, almost completed, runs the length of the route and provides greater access to the resort's picturesque bay side. A new boat launch, docks, and fishing pier will open next week at roughly the causeway's midpoint.
The original causeway, built in 1933, when traffic was lighter, had narrow lanes by modern standards. It was illegal for drivers to pull off and fish or crab from the road shoulders.
"Fabulous is actually an understatement," Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce, said of the "amazing road" and its early completion.
"I think this is truly going to be the highlight of the 2012 summer season for Ocean City," she said Wednesday.
Construction seemed to go on forever, Gillian said, causing tense moments for locals and visitors. Ocean City business owners complained that detours made it difficult for drivers from the mainland to get downtown.
"Everyone's going to be glad it's over," Gillian said.
The two-story visitor center, on an islet on the southbound side just before the last bridge into Ocean City, remains under construction. It is a replica of the early 20th-century Ocean City Yacht Club demolished years ago.
The stylish structure, with wide porches and oversize windows, is expected to be completed by September and will be a center for children's activities and environmental programs. It will also house a maritime museum, Gillian said.
See a video about the Route 52 Causeway at www.philly.com/bridge