Front photo: Mid-span Beesley's Point Bridge. At the Beesley's Point Bridge, from left: County Engineer Dale Foster, County Administrator Stephen O'Connor, Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo, Freeholder Ralph Bakley Sr., Freeholder Director Daniel Beyel
BEESLEY'S POINT — Earlier on Tuesday, Dec. 30 owners of Beesley's Point Bridge repaid the state Department of Transportation its $900,000, and the Cape May County Board of Freeholders signed documents, paid $1 and the bridge became county property.
Later, at afternoon press availability at the southern end of the closed, 80-year-old bridge, a delegation of county officials and two members of the First District Legislative team braved a chilly wind to make the action public.
“This has been a long time coming, and I’m glad we’re finally in a position to get this bridge rehabilitated and reopened,” said Freeholder Director Daniel Beyel.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-1st) stressed the public safety issue of having the bridge reopened.
“Some day, someone will go to the freeholders or to this legislative team and say ‘You saved a life,’” said Van Drew.
While some felt the county was “buying a pig in a poke,” said Van Drew, that just isn’t so, he added. The bridge, linking Cape May and Atlantic counties, closed for four and a half years, can be revamped, he said.
The former owners had engineering studies done to prove that rehabilitation was possible and practical, Van Drew said.
“Fiscally, it makes sense,” he continued, noting that the state would pay 60 percent of the cost of the projected $20 million to repair the span, while user fees (tolls) would pay the remaining 40 percent,” he continued.
“You have done the right thing,” Van Drew reassured Beyel, who stood at his right hand.
County Engineer Dale Foster said the first thing the county would do would be to hire consultants to survey the extent of the work that would have to be done to reopen the bridge by 2012.
He said the bascule span would be placed in the open position within the next three months to allow boat traffic, and eliminate the need for a bridge tender.
A list of permits will be required including some from the state Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers.
One of the first orders of business will be repainting the steel underpinnings, once the rust of many years is taken away.
The present asphalt surface, deteriorated in many places, will be removed and replaced. The inadequate pipe railing will be replaced with guardrails, Foster said.
There will also be major overhaul on the electrical system, he said.
Once all the work is completed, it is estimated the bridge will be usable for at least 15 more years, Foster said.
When the bridge reopens, possibly in 2012 if not earlier, it’s $1.50 toll, charged one way, will equal that of the Garden State Parkway, said Stephen O’Connor, county administrator and executive director of the Cape May County Bridge Commission, which will operate the bridge.
“The users will pay the complete debt,” said O’Connor.
Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo lauded the work done by the legislators and freeholders.
“The community can never be prepared enough,” said Palombo, who witnessed first-hand hurricane damage wrought in the South by recent storms.
At present, he said, there is just one entrance to this peninsula, and that a second one is needed for safety, evacuation and other emergencies.
“No where else in New Jersey is a state road cut off, and a highway dead ended,” said Palombo.
“Speaking for (Upper) township committee, we could not be happier,” the mayor added.
In the last year of its operation, some 2 million cars crossed the bridge. At that time, its toll was 35 cents each way, while the Parkway toll was 30 cents, said Beyel.
According to a county release, the freeholders previously filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Transportation to force the state repair of the bridge.
In a negotiated settlement, DOR agreed to provide funding for the anticipated $20 million rehabilitation of the bridge. Under the funding formula, the state will pay the full $1.3 million annual debt for the first three years while the bridge repairs are made.
After the bridge is opened to traffic, the state will continue to pay 60 percent of the debt. The remainder will be paid by tolls.
“Based on the Bridge Commission operating the facility with one-way $1.50 tolls, the approximate 1.7 million users of the bridge will be paying the county’s share of the repairs,” Beyel stated.
“I anticipate we will be awarding a contract in February or March for this (engineering proposals and securing permits to start) for this phase,” Beyel continued.
“I’ve urged the DOT as well as our legislators to help expedite the permitting process so we can start construction as soon as possible,” he stated.