As the nation contemplates spending vast sums of money on infrastructure, it’s time for us to raise our sights, to shoot for the sun and hope we get the moon. We have lived with poor infrastructure in and around Cape May County for decades because of missed opportunities in the 1960s, and it’s time for us to correct that mistake and also do other things that had been discussed: Complete route 55, and replace our dilapidated internal bridges.
The lack of that infrastructure, or an incomplete version of it, has led to our being overly dependent on tourism, and a backwater and a dead end in many ways for our year around residents and graduating students. Fixing infrastructure holds out the potential for correcting many of these deficiencies.
In this light, let us reconsider the unbuilt Delaware Bay Bridge.
A 17 mile stretch of water inhibits the vehicle flow north and south making exit zero a dead end in the state’s southern peninsula. With only a northern entrance and exit point to the county and the long-promised Route 55 extension in limbo, the county remains a bottleneck rather than a through path along the Atlantic coast.
There was a moment in time when this county stood ready to be the crossroads for a traffic network. On April, 15, 1964 the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel was opened creating a coastal transportation route north from the southern states. In July the ribbon was cut on the new Atlantic City Expressway linking Philadelphia with the still relatively new Garden State Parkway. A southern turn at Pleasantville would lead drivers down into Cape May County.
What stood between these two engineering accomplishments was the Delaware Bay, beginning in Cape May Point and ending in Lewes, Delaware. The answer in that same year was the Cape May Lewes Ferry, opened July 1, 1964. The ferry service got its start after the newly-established Delaware Bay River Authority (DRBA) purchased 4 ferries no longer needed in Virginia after completion of the Chesapeake bridge tunnel.
At the time, a bridge over the southern expanse of the Delaware Bay was contemplated but never financed. A 1969 engineering design firm study estimated that a 4 lane bridge would cost between $200 and $250 million. The study came with the suggestion that a two lane bridge could save up to $100 million with the deferral of a second span until a future date.
DRBA judged that the expense could not be justified until at least 1985 due to the lack of travel demand. Another study in 1980 concluded that the bridge would not be necessary until at least 2000. By 2003 DRBA Chairman Richard Cordrey again said traffic projections did not warrant the span. He estimated the cost in 2003 at $1 billion.
Since that time, the short stretch of water remains the missing connection for a coastal route that would otherwise run from Maine to Florida and pass straight through Cape May County. The ferries are not fast enough nor frequent enough to enable the coastal route to flourish and support economic development along its span.
The 80-minute ferry ride is a wonderful experience for those with the time to enjoy it, but it cannot serve as a major transportation link providing another access and exit point to and from Cape May County. Plans to extend Route 55 south into the county have been dormant for decades. A county whose summer population swells by 700% is left with an incomplete infrastructure despite sending north over $1.5 million per day in taxes. County data shows that in 2019 upwards of 10.2 million individuals visited Cape May County. Their expenditures that year amounted to $6.9 billion according to county tourism officials.
A bridge over the Delaware Bay would not only bolster the area’s tourist economy, it would also open new avenues to develop alternative economic options. We need balanced economic development with sectors beyond tourism that don’t require hibernating in the winter months.
Why call for this now? Because the timing could not be better.
The pandemic has produced a new dissatisfaction with city life. A real estate boom in the county is a product of growing desire by many to live, at least part-time, outside urban centers. New uses of the internet have helped reorganize work and kicked off the WFH (Working From Home) boom. The economic impact of the pandemic has brought support to infrastructure projects as a necessary part of any recovery program.
Now is the time for our elected representatives to get our infrastructure needs into the discussion. The benefits of a bridge over the Delaware Bay would be broad based and not limited to a small, underpopulated county, but they would help that county flourish.
* * * * *
We should make a Delaware Bay Bridge part of a long-overdue updating of our infrastructure, necessary to lift Cape May County out of its stagnant situation, which depresses its wages and drives its citizens to other, more forward-thinking states.
From the Bible: In the beginning -- God blessed mankind and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Genesis 1:28