Cape May County is an ocean and bay vacation paradise with several barrier islands, abundant wetlands and lots of wildlife. Connecting it all are at least 28 bridges, subject to added weathering from salt in the water and air.
For decades, many officials did only the minimum necessary to keep the bridges open (most of the time), leaving more expensive repairs and replacement for the budgets of their future elected replacements.
Finally, those on the county Board of Freeholders are shouldering their responsibility and addressing the needs of the bridge system with a bold plan. With any luck getting state and federal funding for much of the work, it may not cost nearly as much as feared by those who did little in the past.
The need is obvious. Bridges that repeatedly shut for emergency repairs is just the start. Some of the bridges are in poor condition and functionally obsolete. Some were built in the 1930s, and an antique bridge is not a valuable find on a road show.
The bridges are crucial to road and waterway transportation, especially when summer visitors swell the population. The county’s $6.6 billion tourism industry depends on them working and being safe.
One of the East Coast’s most valuable fishing ports depends on one of the bridges in the worst shape. That lets vehicles drive from the south end of the Wildwoods to the mainland, and allows commercial boats to reach their home on the Middle Thorofare inlet.
Replacing that bridge alone is estimated to cost $230 million. But a new bridge accommodating wider ships and nearby bridges rated for heavier trucks would allow the commercial port to grow — possibly handling heavy commodities in addition to seafood.
The most urgent project though, according to county engineer Robert Church, is replacing the drawbridge leading into Stone Harbor that closed three times for emergency repairs in 2019. Last week the freeholders issued a request for replacement design proposals.
The projected cost of the plan for all the bridges is $603 million to $890 million. County officials hope that about 70% of the money will come from federal and state sources. They’re pretty confident that at least half of it will.
For a point of reference, the federal government kicked in $400 million to rebuild the Ocean City causeway and its two bridges.
Given the dire financial condition of New Jersey and the rapidly increasing federal debt during the pandemic, getting their help seems like it could be challenging. But then again, they’re still spending like there’s no tomorrow so who knows.
One thing is certain — this is a perfect time to bond such a big, worthy public capital project. Interest rates are at rock bottom and government entities such as Cape May County that have sound finances and a good credit rating (unlike for example state government) can save a bundle on interest payments.
Freeholder Will Morey said the county already started putting some money toward the bridges in 2017. He tells residents, “If you’ve been able to afford the county taxes for the past four years, you have nothing to fear from this bridge plan.”
That would be great. Frankly, as we’ve said before, this is a big job that must be done and there is not going to be a better time to do it.
We’re glad to see county officials taking up this essential task that is part of their responsibilities, and we’re rooting for them to get the funding they need and the work done by their 2035 target.