After a series of delays caused by the need for repairs and then the start of the tourist season, the Cape May County Bridge Commission is finally beginning the installation of E-ZPass on its five Ocean Drive bridges. The work should be completed by spring, officials said.
And the commission is to meet Thursday to begin the process of deciding whether to just repair two of the bridges, or completely reconstruct both, according to Patrick Rosenello, chairman of the Cape May County Bridge Commission.
"It's what we're going to sit down and begin to figure out," said Rosenello, noting that the commission had authorized a study of the two spans earlier this year.
The reconstruction of both of the structurally "needy" bridges — the Townsends Inlet Bridge linking Sea Isle City and Avalon, and the Middle Thorofare Bridge between Wildwood Crest and Cape May — could trigger a toll hike to help offset the costs involved.
The other three spans are the Grassy Sound Bridge, which connects Stone Harbor with North Wildwood; the Corson's Inlet Bridge connecting Ocean City with Strathmere, and the Ocean City-Longport Bridge.
Installation of the E-ZPass toll collection system is to begin on the Ocean City-Longport Bridge this week and could be completed by late November. The other four installations will be finished by spring, officials said.
Two of the older bridges — Townsends Inlet and Middle Thorofare — were built in the 1930s and have been rehabbed a number of times, but still reveal structural cracks and other safety concerns that need attention, officials said. While the Garden State Parkway and U.S. Route 9 are considered the major north-south roadways in the region, the bridges link the barrier island beach towns on an alternative route known as Ocean Drive.
Installation of E-ZPass is costing the county about $500,000, and Rosenello said the commission is working with the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the Atlantic City Expressway, on the project. Officials, as well as motorists who routinely use the bridges, have said they are hoping E-ZPass lanes will alleviate summertime congestion, when drivers sometimes are stacked up in single lines to pay the toll in cash. As many as 50,000 cars a month use each bridge during the summer.
Officials have not yet said exactly what constructing new bridges would cost — the commission has put likely price tags in the hundreds of millions — or how much of a toll hike could be involved. Some of the costs of the projects may be paid for via federal grants and loans.
Rosenello said Wednesday that the commission had originally planned to have E-ZPass lanes installed on the bridges by spring of 2017. But structural issues with the Townsends Inlet Bridge cost about $1 million for short-term fixes, prompted miles-long detours for two months, and caused a delay of the start of the E-ZPass project. By the time the repairs were completed, officials decided it was too close to the beginning of the busy summer tourist season to begin a project that could tie up traffic on the spans.
At the time, the commission had floated the idea of a toll hike between 50 cents and $1, but it was never instituted. The commission says it hasn't had a toll hike since 2009. The current toll on the bridges is $1.50, in one direction.