Island PDs Locked Out of Bridge Updates; DOT Now Considers Work an Emergency Fix

By GINA G. SCALA | Jun 05, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Traffic safety is the chief concern for Long Beach Island law enforcement officials during the temporary daytime lane closures on the Causeway, which began earlier this week to stabilize slopes near the West Thorofare Bridge. The state Department of Transportation is defending the lane closures, calling the work imperative and emergent for the structural integrity of that section of the Causeway.

“If this condition is not immediately addressed, a significant storm could cause a failure of the approach roadways, necessitating the closure of the bridge, jeopardizing the safety of the residents and visitors on the Island,” Steve Schapiro, director of communications for the DOT, said yesterday afternoon.

When the request for lane closures was first discussed last month, Island officials were told it was due to the noise factor from driving metal sheeting into the bay floor. A June 1 communication between state and local officials didn’t disclose the necessity of the work for bridge safety.

“It’s incredulous the way it unfolded,” Ship Bottom Police Chief Paul Sharkey said Monday. Ship Bottom officials were led to believe the closures weren’t going to happen because the state and its contractors received so much pushback from Island officials, he added. “No one told us anything. We never had a meeting (to discuss). We used to have meetings. That’s what has me so dumbfounded.”

Long Beach Township Police Chief Anthony Deeley said he was made aware of the lane closures through neighboring Ship Bottom about mid-morning June 1. The lane closures began at 7 a.m. on Monday, June 4. Local fire companies and first aid squads on the Island have just so many rigs apiece, he explained, and if one or more is caught up in Causeway lane closure traffic, it creates an unsafe and dangerous environment for everyone.

“This is about saving lives and protection,” Deeley said.

The 3-mile-long Causeway is located mostly in Stafford Township, with only a small portion in Ship Bottom’s jurisdiction. However, as the gateway community to LBI, Ship Bottom funnels all traffic on and off the Island. Any lane closure on the Causeway will impact safe access to the barrier island. Last November, a road repaving project in Stafford caused bottleneck traffic jams for a two-day period in the week before Thanksgiving. The effects were felt on the Island, down both sides of Long Beach Boulevard as well as Central and Barnegat avenues, and other streets in the area.

Epic traffic congestion, vehicles blocking intersections, cars going the wrong way down one-way streets and careless driving were just some of the problems police in Ship Bottom and Stafford Township contended with last summer when a five-car accident shut one lane eastbound on the Causeway. To beat the traffic getting onto the Island, some motorists took to driving on the shoulder of Route 72 to reach Jennings Road and take the Beach Haven West route to the base of the Causeway. There was no relief to be found there, and instead some motorists drove on the wrong side of the road to bypass cars as they waited to turn right onto Mill Creek Road.

“My hope, when we have gridlock, is that they allow us to make the decision about whether this is working or not,” Sharkey said.

State transportation officials have said if traffic becomes a problem, the lane closures will be from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. only Monday through Thursday for the first project, which entails the driving of metal sheeting into the bay floor around the west abutment between Cedar Bonnet Island and Bonnet Island. That’s the timeframe Island mayors asked the state to go with to limit the impact on Island businesses, residents, seasonal homeowners and visitors during the resort communities’ busiest season.

“John Spodofora (Stafford Township mayor) allowed this to happen,” Long Beach Township Mayor Joseph Mancini said during Monday’s monthly board of commissioners meeting, “because of one complaint on Cedar Bonnet Island. All of the Island mayors are pretty upset.”

During the first project, all lanes are expected to be reopened in both directions by 9 p.m. Thursday to account for weekend traffic. Just ask anyone familiar with the area and they will gladly relate that weekend traffic isn’t the only time getting on and off the barrier island is problematic during the summer. Just yesterday, the second day of the eastbound daytime lane closure, traffic was backed up for about 20 minutes coming onto LBI.

“It more than triples this time of year,” Sharkey said, noting his department has a plan in place to handle the forthcoming traffic snarls, accidents and road rage that are expected to come with the lane closures.

Schapiro said the timeframe was designed to minimize the impact to local residents and businesses. “It requires closing one lane out of four on Route 72 to position the equipment necessary for driving steel sheet piles, which is extremely loud.”

Schapiro said state authorities worked with Stafford Township officials and “agreed to the work hours the town requested, which are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.” That schedule permits crews to work a 14-hour day while avoiding overnight work that would disturb residents while they are sleeping. In addition, the work is taking place only Monday through Thursday to avoid interfering with weekend shore traffic.

“We have a good working relationship with each other on the Island and with Stafford,” Sharkey said, noting people should expect traffic delays and plan for an additional 30 to 45 minutes to get off the Island once the westbound lane closure begins next week. “We've seen this so many times. It’s so insane.”

Since the Causeway, a continuation of Route 72, is a state highway, the State Police are on hand to assist in addressing any incidents that may occur, according to Schapiro. They are also available if any emergency vehicle needs an escort, he said.

“How a town chooses to use its local police, and the cost that may be incurred, are solely the responsibility of the municipality,” he said when asked if the state planned to reimburse local municipalities for overtime costs associated with additional police due to the lane closures.

What still has not been addressed is whether lane closures will continue through the summer as part of a second request for daytime closures to allow for a better finished product for the pouring of concrete. That request proposes closing lanes every Tuesday and Thursday from 6 a.m. until noon. It would be expected to last through June, July and August.

Work on the project began in 2013 and is expected to continue through 2021. The Causeway links Stafford on the mainland with Ship Bottom on the Island.

As part of the project, a new bridge has been constructed parallel to the pre-existing one over Manahawkin Bay, providing the safety of a redundant route on or off the Island. The new bridge is 2,400 feet long with a vertical clearance of 55 feet over the bay. It currently has two lanes in each direction while the original Causeway Bridge is rehabilitated. Ultimately, the new bridge will carry eastbound traffic once the project is completed, with the rehabilitated original bridge carrying westbound traffic.

The precise timing of the work is subject to change due to weather or other factors. Motorists are encouraged to check the DOT’s traffic information website, 511nj.org, for construction updates and real-time travel information, and for DOT news on Twitter @NJDOT_info.

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

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