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Cape Issues reported on the ambitious county bridge plan Sept. 16. We outlined the plan, which stretches over 15 years and promises to replace or rejuvenate many of the bridges that deteriorated beyond their useful life (https://bit.ly/300JbLh).  

The project is large, complex, expensive, and necessary. It will need strong public support.  

Since that report on the plan was published, a bridges subcommittee of Cape Issues had the opportunity to meet twice with officials charged with the execution of the plan. We also met with the county auditor to better understand the funding strategies involved.  

The cost estimates of the plan range from $603 to $890 million. The meetings were open and informative, with a frank exchange of views on the issues that inherently accompany so ambitious an effort.  

The county officials we met with were Freeholder Will Morey, County Engineer Robert Church, County Public Works Administrator Nancy Mauro, and Bridge Commission Engineer Lewis Donofrio. In the second meeting, we were joined by Leon Costello, the county’s auditor.  

The plan provides information on the condition of 23 county bridges and five Bridge Commission bridges, with over half of them in need of replacement or significant repair.  

Any project of that size, spread as this one is over 15 years, will have several issues that require close public scrutiny.  

In our meetings, we expressed concerns that we are sure many of the public share. We found county officials receptive and willing to provide us with access to the right people so that we better understand the strategies and follow the execution of the plan as it unfolds. We promise to keep you informed.  

Chief among our issues is the need for the public to better understand the funding parameters. We want to know more about how cost estimates were established.  

County officials explained that the range of costs associated with each bridge project incorporates some measure of contingencies and potential escalation of costs. Significant unknowns exist, and county officials said they will be addressed on a project-by-project basis.  

The proposed schedule will also have to adjust to available funds and support resources. Key to the financing of so many bridge projects will be outside funding, principally from state and federal sources.  

The plan assumes that a minimum of 50% of costs will be covered by such funds and targets a higher figure of 70% as the goal in seeking such funding.  

These assumptions are based on experience with past projects and will be tested as the efforts on individual bridge projects are “shovel ready.”  

The plan has been sent to key state officials and the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization (SJTPO).  

The Cape Issues subcommittee was advised by a state government representative that if a project is not on the SJTPO plan, state or federal funding would not be available.  

As both federal and state budgets adjust to the financial impact of the pandemic, continued communication between the county and state and federal sources will be critical to success.  

We expressed some concern about the county’s ability to resource and support so many potentially concurrent bridge projects. Officials believe there are sufficient resources in the county to accomplish the tasks but admit that outside resources will be used as needed.  

We expressed the opinion that the county should consider a general contractor rather than manage each bridge contractor with county resources. The idea was accepted for consideration.  

As indicated above, many factors may impact the proposed schedule. Officials said regular updates will be available.  

The overall plan should require an annual update for the public. Public communication must be a key aspect of a plan that will almost span a generation.  

Officials said that public meetings will be scheduled with formal updates as the plan moves forward.  

We discussed the wisdom of proactive contact with vested interest groups, especially those with potential environmental concerns. We were told that key county personnel were assigned to community and vested interest group communications. This must and will also include construction plans and potential travel disruptions.  

The question of how the county will finance those portions of the project that must be internally funded was never far from the discussions.  

The county began setting aside funds for the plan, in 2017. We were told $25.9 million will be accumulated by year-end 2020 and an additional approximately $8 million will be added by the end of 2021.  

How this money will be used is somewhat complicated since it may involve paying down existing county debt to clear the slate for new borrowing at presumably lower interest rates.  

We are pursuing a better understanding of the internal financing options and will inform you when we have solid information.  

Given the likelihood of competing needs in this era of COVID-19 recovery and potential freeholder board turnover in the next 15 years, we suggested establishing a “set aside fund” dedicated to the capital projects involved with the bridge plan.  

All concerns aside, the comprehensive bridge plan is a major first step in dealing with critical infrastructure problems that can no longer be patched over. We should all welcome the fact that a plan is in place.  

The execution of the plan, open and frequent communication regarding it and the resolution of the known and unforeseen obstacles will be the challenge confronting the county. Local, state, and federal support will be critical to its success.  

Cape Issues is committed to regular follow up with the county and updates for the public. As always, we welcome your comments and suggestions via email at capeissues@cmcherald.com.  

Cape Issues was established, in 2008, as a non-partisan volunteer group to advocate for the betterment of life in Cape May County, a very broad goal. We have met monthly since and been fortunate to have the support of the Cape May County Herald from the beginning. 

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