Cape May County plans to temporarily fix the Townsends Inlet causeway before Memorial Day, preserving an important link between Avalon and Sea Isle City that has become increasingly difficult to maintain.
The only direct connection from Ludlam Island to Seven Mile Island has been closed since Hurricane Sandy ripped apart the roadway on the southern side of the inlet with surging seas that buckled the asphalt and eroded the roadbed.
It will cost an estimated $13 million to fully fortify Ocean Drive from pounding waves and restore the toll bridge that an average of more than 5,700 vehicles use a day at the peak of the summer.
Joshua Jaspan, co-owner of Hank Sauce restaurant on Landis Avenue in southern Sea Isle, said those numbers indicate the bridge’s vital importance to commerce on both sides of the waterway.
“We are in the United States of America, and people want what they want, when they want, expediently,” the Dennis Township resident said. “Everything is usually at arm’s reach, and if you have to go out of your way, I don’t want to say you lose 100 percent of the business, but you lose about 75 percent.”
While clearly a convenient access point for each of the popular resorts, the county’s engineers are struggling to keep the route where it is.
The causeway and bridge date to 1939, and part of the road traces the tracks of a railroad bridge that once also joined the land masses, but they have been steadily tested by an ocean that is trying to widen Townsends Inlet.
Aerial photos taken since the 1920s show there once used to be a substantial beach to the east of Ocean Drive in Avalon, but now waves crash directly against the seawall, often splashing overtop. October’s hurricane generated a storm surge powerful enough to move boulders there.
County Engineer Dale Foster said initial discussions included a plan to let the inlet expand and simply build a longer bridge, but that was projected to cost tens of millions of dollars.
Instead, the government will try to stand its ground.
The Board of Chosen Freeholders is soliciting bids to stabilize the road, repave the surface and supply 1,510 tons of riprap — a type of stone composite — to restore access through the summer. It is currently stable enough, with one lane of access, to allow more than 1,000 runners to pass through this weekend for the Ocean Drive Marathon.
The long-term plans are for sturdier repairs starting in late fall and continuing into 2014.
That will include driving metal sheaths on each side of Ocean Drive to prevent water from causing erosion underneath and laying concrete on top so salt water cannot seep through asphalt cracks and undermine the road.
Another way of doing that would be to raise the seawall, but that is not part of the plan.
“If we were to raise the seawall, we would take away that beautiful vista that you have with the ocean there,” said Foster, “so I think the public probably wouldn’t go for that.”
The project will also mean fixing the corroded 74-year-old bridge, which had a weight restriction of 3 tons even before Sandy, limiting all large trucks and buses. The drawbridge and fixed structure need an estimated $3 million worth of work to bring its weight limit up to 15 tons.
“Steel just doesn’t last in a marine environment,” Foster said.
The county will use a $1 million grant from the state to help pay for the bridge repairs, and it also plans to receive an 80 percent reimbursement from the Federal Highway Administration for the roadway improvements.
The goal will be to have both the bridge and causeway work completed at about the same time in the beginning of next year.
With a bridge and road fully operational again, travel between the islands will not only potentially return to what it once was, but there is the possibility it could reach new levels.
Last summer, Sea Isle City debuted jitney service to improve transportation from one end of the city to the other. Avalon and Stone Harbor will do the same this summer, and there has been talk about running jitneys between the islands to make it easier to go to bars and restaurants in all three communities.
John O’Dea, president of the Avalon Chamber of Commerce, said that would be a welcome opportunity for all businesses.
“Ideally, if we could do it, it’d be great,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen this summer, but hopefully, at some point, we will be able to do that.”
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