Cape May County has a thriving tourism industry that has rebounded to record levels from pandemic cautions and restrictions. What must be a $7 billion industry by now looks very solid.
But Cape’s ocean and bay vacation paradise has an Achilles’ heel that so far is proving difficult to protect. Access into and out of the tourist destinations depends on some 28 bridges subject to the damage of salt in the water and air.
For decades, officials generally did only the maintenance necessary to keep the bridges open, putting off far more expensive repairs and preparation for their replacement.
Tolls on some of the bridges covered current expenses. Bridges exceeded their expected lifespan and became more costly and challenging to keep open.
The county spent nearly $4 million on rehabbing the bridge between the Wildwoods and Cape May when state funding fell well short of the $7.4 million price. The bridge over Middle Thorofare, crucial to one of the East Coast’s most valuable fishing ports, needs replacement at an estimated cost of $230 million.
Then in September 2020, the county Board of Freeholders announced a bold plan to address the needs of the bridge system.
They projected the cost for needed bridge repairs and replacements at $603 million to $890 million. County officials said they expected about half the money would come from federal and state sources, and hoped as much as 70% would. Freeholder Will Morey said the county already had started putting some money toward the bridges in 2017, and that the impact on county taxes would be tolerable.
The replacement of the drawbridge leading into Stone Harbor was deemed the most urgent project, and the freeholders (now called commissioners) issued a call for design proposals. That bridge at 96th Street is scheduled for replacement in 2027.
Even if the county’s bridge plan is funded as expected, the work will take at least until 2035 to finish.
More money is needed meanwhile to keep the spans open. Recently the county Bridge Commission announced that tolls on the five bridges it manages will double in three years to $3 per vehicle with two axles.
That should generate another $15 million for covering increasing maintenance costs, even as administrative costs have been reduced.
The county’s long-term capital plan for its bridges can only get more expensive going forward. And this seems to be a good time for securing funding for it, with $1.7 billion in federal money for infrastructure recently dedicated and state government running a surplus of more than a billion dollars this fiscal year.
The millions of visitors to New Jersey’s preeminent tourism county and the millions in taxes and fees they bring to the state should encourage officials to support the bridges visitors and locals depend on.