CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Last week, with little fanfare, the Cape May County Board of Freeholders approved a plan to address the county’s bridges, outlining hundreds of millions of dollars in spending over the next 15 years.
The state of the county’s bridges has long been a concern, with some designated as being in poor condition and functionally obsolete. A few date from the 1930s.
The plan outlines massive spending, with the cost estimated between $603 million and $890 million. The plan assumes much of the funding will come from state and federal sources.
About 70% of the project costs could come from outside the county, said Freeholder Will Morey, one of the driving forces behind the plan.
If that falls short, he said the county expects to raise at least half the cost of the extensive projects from state and federal sources, an expectation he believes is well within reach.
“I think that’s ultimately more than achievable,” he said.
With many of the county’s communities on barrier islands, the bridges form a vital link between municipalities, and one upon which the county’s $6.6 billion-a-year tourism industry depends.
The plan looks at the 23 bridges in the county, as well as the five toll bridges operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission, of which three date from the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and a fourth over Corsons Inlet that opened in 1949.
The drawbridge over Middle Thorofare near Wildwood Crest has long been a worry to drivers and officials.
“This bridge is beyond its service life and must be replaced,” reads the 82-page plan adopted by the county, which projects construction by 2027 at an estimated cost of more than $230 million.
But according to Cape May County Engineer Robert Church, the bridge of greatest concern is a seemingly nondescript drawbridge leading into Stone Harbor at 96th Street. The county has already spent millions of dollars to keep the bridge in operation, but in 2019, it was closed three times for emergency repairs and the weight and speed limits were recently reduced to address structural concerns.
“The county must replace this span as soon as possible,” reads the document. The projected timeline is to seek proposals for plans for a new bridge in the spring, with the project completed between 2025 and 2027, and a cost estimate of more than $20 million.
The plan includes evaluations of multiple bridges, with the earliest still in use constructed in 1927 and the latest from 2019. Some don’t need any work, or minor projects over the coming 15 years like painting. Others require far more extensive work.
Two of the bridges are along a marshy stretch between the end of the Garden State Parkway and the toll bridge over Middle Thorofare, with the structure of the short, narrow bridge over Upper Thorofare listed as being in poor condition. The bridges have no shoulders and the lanes are narrow compared to the rest of the roadway.
“I ride my bike the fastest going over that section of the road,” Morey said.
But these two are a relatively easy fix compared to the much larger toll bridge leading from there into the Diamond Beach section of Lower Township south of Wildwood Crest. The plan calls for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of improvements along that section of Ocean Drive, as part of an overall plan to address the shortcomings along the route.
According to Church, the toll bridge remains safe to travel, but will need to be replaced. In addition to shore-bound cars, the bridge is the point of access for a large commercial fishing fleet, which relies on regular drawbridge openings for the large trawlers to reach the open ocean. There are also environmentally sensitive areas and protected wildlife preserves, along with several businesses lining the approach.
The long-term plans also call for the replacement of the toll bridges over Grassy Sound, Corsons Inlet and the Townsends Inlet Bridge connecting Avalon and Sea Isle City, which has seen multiple closures over recent years.
The plan also calls for replacing bridges at Hand Avenue and Springers Mill, a smaller bridge at 104th Street in Stone Harbor and extensive work to other bridges around the county.
The county will be able to bond for much of the cost, minimizing the impact on the tax rate. The plan includes a cost estimate of $12.50 more a year for the owner of a house assessed at $250,000.
“This is certainly not overly burdensome given the magnitude of the projects, their critical nature, and the economic and quality of life benefits received by having such important infrastructure fully functional,” reads the county report.
For those worried about the tax impact, Morey said the county began working on funding the plan in 2017, when a part of the county tax levy was dedicated to bridge replacement.
“I tell people, if you’ve been able to afford the county taxes for the past four years, you have nothing to fear from this bridge plan,” he said.
According to Morey, the plan is the result of hundreds of hours of work on the part of county employees, if not thousands of hours. The seemingly buttoned-down member of county government cited a surprising source of inspiration the team turned to throughout the process: the beatnik tank commander “Oddball” played by Donald Sutherland in the Clint Eastwood action movie “Kelly’s Heroes,” set in World War II.
He quoted the characters response when confronted with the possibility that a bridge they planned to cross would no longer be passable:
“Don’t hit me with them negative waves so early in the morning. Think that bridge will be there, and it will be there. It’s a mother beautiful bridge, and it will be there.”
That was the call to action through the process, Morey said.
“This is really going to put Salem on the map for green energy,” said Jennifer Jones.
Standing on the steps of the county courthouse, Jones, executive director of the Salem County Chamber of Commerce, is enthusiastically contemplating the impact of Gov. Phil Murphy’s New Jersey Wind Port project.
Ever since Murphy announced the plans for the project in June, calling it a “once-in-a-generation opportunity,” the Wind Port, billed as the first in the nation to be built specifically to support the development of offshore wind farms, has been generating buzz in the region.
For state officials, it’s part of the governor’s goal for New Jersey to reach 100% clean energy by 2035.
But for residents in this historic, rural county, the project offers something else, jobs — 1,500 good-paying green energy jobs, generating a $500 million bump in the economy, all beginning by 2021.
This will be the largest economic development project in the past 50 years, Jones said.
“This will be a boom for everyone. It’s an opportunity, once in a lifetime” according to Charles Hassler, a freeholder in Salem County, where the project will be located. “We have the opportunity to be the leaders in the country in energy. This is a big deal.”
Salem County is the smallest county in the state in terms of population, with much of its 372 square miles still used for farming. The county has the largest amount of preserved farmland in the state, with 40,234 acres — one out of every six acres. Some of that farmland is being set aside for alternative energy production.
A solar field that will be the largest in the state is planned to cover 800 acres in Pilesgrove Township, at the Nichomus Run Solar Farm, according to developer Dakota Power Partners.
Jones says the combination of green energy projects, jobs and the county’s available land is a good fit.
“To have a project that is going to change the footprint of our economy while still being good for the environment is a great thing,” she said of the wind port. “It’s going to be a great fit for us.”
The site of the proposed wind port is a 10-mile boat ride from Billy’s Boat Works, near the Port of Salem. Huge barges cruise the Delaware River on their way to and from ports like Philadelphia and Wilmington until the giant cooling tower of Artificial Island comes into view on the horizon. The planned site sits quietly undeveloped next to the cooling tower on the banks of the river among acres of swaying cattails.
Site next to nuclear plants
The wind port site is part of Artificial Island, a man-made island home to three nuclear power plants, owned by Public Service Enterprise Group (PSE&G), a partner with the state on the project.
Salem Nuclear Plant went on line commercially in 1977, and was later joined by Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station in 1986. With its combined output of 3,572 megawatts, the Salem-Hope Creek complex is the largest nuclear generating facility in the Eastern United States and the second largest nationwide.
The project will include both a manufacturing site on 200 acres along the Delaware River, in Lower Alloways Creek, where parts for wind turbines would be built, and a marshaling and staging area where the turbines would be assembled and put on ships, to be delivered to wind farms along the Eastern Seaboard.
The wind port site was chosen because of its quick access to the ocean with no bridges or other obstacles that would obstruct the transportation of the turbines that will be “as tall as the Eiffel Tower,” according to Tim Sullivan, CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
The combination of a green energy facility and a nuclear plant sharing marshy Artificial Island may seem incongruous. But both are considered sustainable energy sources, according to James Conca who writes about energy in Forbes magazine.
A bigger factor is cost. While the cost of most other forms of energy has gone down (wind is a quarter of the cost of nuclear power), nuclear power is four to eight times higher than it was four decades ago, according to Project Drawdown, which researches and analyzes climate solutions. And, of course, there’s the risk and safety concerns of nuclear power from accidents like what occurred at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, to disposing of the spent fuel rods.
Salem getting ready
Freeholder Hassler remembers when the nuclear plant was built and some of the qualified, skilled jobs that went to workers outside the region.
“We’re going to beat that this time,” he said. “We are going to find out what we need out there to get our workforce ready.”
The local community college and vocational-technical career school are in the planning stages, in conjunction with the chamber of commerce, to develop programs to prepare the local workforce for the opportunities that will be available at the wind port, added Jones. And workers that land jobs but who live outside the community will still be adding to the local economy, the local businesses and the housing market, she said.
“The outpouring of support from our residents was terrific,” she said. “They’re not only excited about it being green energy, but because of the high-paying manufacturing jobs that this is going to bring to our area.”
Hassler agrees that the county is poised to deliver what is needed for the wind facility to work, from a railroad that runs to the Port of Salem, housing, business space and an airport.
In Salem city, he said, where the workforce is predominantly blue collar, the jobs and economic spinoff will be welcome.
Several empty storefronts line Broadway, the main street through Salem. About 26% of families and 28% of the city’s population live below the poverty line, according to census information.
“We can use the employment,” Hassler said. “This is a glass factory town that doesn’t have any more glass factories.”
But he, along with others, are cautious until he sees real action take place. Hopefully, he said, Murphy will come through with the plan, estimated at between $300-400 million, which the New Jersey Economic Development Authority is hoping to finance through a combination of public, private and mixed public-private sources.
“The buzz in the town itself is hopeful,” said Kim Lounsbury, a sales associate at Parker Jewelers, a longtime business located off Broadway in the center of Salem. Lounsbury believes it will create jobs, boost the housing market, and benefit small businesses like Parker.
“We’ll be fixing all their watches so they can get to work on time,” she said. “It’s encouraging that PSE&G, as a competing industry, is also on board and thinking that it has sustainability and a future.”
This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Hub project.
Right after Gov. Phil Murphy announced this month that schools can start the academic year offering online classes, districts across the state rolled back their hybrid instruction models — and parents started to panic.
What will they do with their kids during the day if they have to go to work? If they’re working from home, how will they balance their workload while helping their children with instruction?
That’s when some organizations, their own routines impacted by restrictions during the pandemic, began offering a solution — drop your child off to the local organization, dance studio or gymnastics academy where they can experience the structure of school, complete with physical activities.
As a parent, Ashley Tabano, owner of Encore! Performing Arts Center in Egg Harbor Township, felt firsthand the anxiety over what she will do with her kids, ages 10, 7 and 2, during school hours.
“I want them to go somewhere, be able to do their work and then have a little bit of interaction, a little bit of physical activity,” she said. “I knew that it was something that I would really appreciate, and as I started to talk to some of the other parents they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a great idea.’”
Tabano is also the dance teacher at Cedar Creek High School and has to report to the school to virtually teach her students.
To help parents in similar situations, Tabano’s Encore! will offer a “Eduternative” program where parents can drop off their child, with their laptop, headphones, snacks and lunch for the day and Encore will oversee school instruction and help with any academic questions.
Similar programs are also being offered at Bright Stars Gymnastics in Egg Harbor Township and at the Cumberland-Cape-Atlantic YMCA in Vineland.
“We really listened to our community, especially parents that were working either from home or in office jobs,” said Theresa Booth, senior director of child development at the YMCA. “For some parents, they have a job, they have a career. How do you do that and be a parent and balance being a teacher? That’s a lot of stress, so we thought how could we help.”
The YMCA is offering the program at its Vineland location and, through a partnership, with elementary schools in Port Norris and Somers Point. Bright Stars, Encore and the YMCA are all taking similar approaches when it comes to virtual learning and the health and safety of its students and staff.
Temperature checks will be taken when students arrive, and a health questionnaire will be given. Students and staff must wear a mask at all times and work tables will be 6 feet apart.
Students will be broken up by age, in different groups in different rooms and staff will be on site to help with any schoolwork-related questions. Staff range from substitute teachers to former teachers to college students willing to help.
“One of our employees, who’s also a mom, is right on top of the kids,” said Bonnie Petitt, owner of Bright Stars. “She’s very efficient, and she’ll be facilitating the structure in the program and making sure they’re getting their work done and answering any questions.
“She’ll redirect them if they’re getting off track or distracted,” she added. “The parents will be responsible for making sure the kids are actually on track with what the school is asking of them, but we will make sure that the time they spend here with schoolwork is productive.”
Each program will have a schedule in place that includes virtual learning time, lunch and physical and extracurricular activities.
“We feel as though we can offer the full package that the children need to focus on their academics. We’ll make sure they get a lot of physical activity, a lot of team building and a lot of socialization,” Petitt said.
The YMCA is also doing social emotional learning, where frequent check-ins to students will occur from staff who received trauma training who can look for signs, Booth said.
“I can’t imagine being a small child dealing with all this doom and gloom,” she said. “Wearing a mask and not going to school, ‘I can’t go to school and I can’t hug my friends.’”
Most schools in the area that are starting the academic year all virtual plan to return to a hybrid model in October or November, but Petitt may offer the program all year.
“We’ve had a lot of interest for the entire school year,” she said. “We are planning to keep moving forward with it. A lot of what we’re hearing is that parents are still not clear when their children are going to be scheduled to go to school, if at all.”
Encore and the YMCA plan to do the same, although Tabano hopes kids will eventually return to school.
“As a teacher I want to teach my kids in person,” she said. “Obviously I understand (the pandemic), but it’s just disheartening to even think of the detriment that’s going to happen to these kids by not having in-person instruction.
“I’m really trying to help,” she added about the program. “It’s a tough time and we all need to help each other.”