Morris Boulevard Bridge Replacement Opponents Want Freeholder to Intervene

Dec 19, 2018

Some things elicit more interest than others, and in a waterfront community there is almost nothing more compelling than access to the water. That’s why with more than 15 minutes until an informational session began, the council meeting room at the Stafford Township municipal complex was nearly filled to capacity with Beach Haven West residents and others wanting to learn more about plans for replacing the Morris Boulevard Bridge.

By the time John Ernst, Ocean County engineer, addressed the audience, there was standing room only with a line of people at the back of the room and some creeping up the sides of it. The din of chatter among audience members didn’t cease throughout his short presentation.

The Morris Boulevard bridge, located just above the beginning of the Causeway to Long Beach Island, was built in 1955. Currently, it’s 20 feet wide with an under-clearance of 7 feet. The proposed replacement bridge is slated for a combined width of 40 feet and an under-clearance of 8 feet at mean-high tide, according to Ernst.

It's not what the audience wanted to hear.

“We can only raise it so high because of the (road) speed limit,” Ernst said. “The posted speed limit is 25 mph. We’ve designed the curve for 27 mph. We try to do 5 mph over the speed limit to maximize the under-clearance.”

His explanation didn’t stop several members of the audience from questioning how the design could be changed to achieve the look and feel of the Marsha Drive bridge, which has an under-clearance of 9 feet and is about 40 feet wide. One suggestion included lowering the speed limit, which is a decision made by the town, not the county. Morris Boulevard is a Stafford Township road, but the county is responsible for the bridge. Any adjustment to the speed limit would need to come from the town, Ernst said.

Even then, there is no guarantee the speed reduction would work the way some members of the audience want it to work. In order to increase the under-clearance by a foot, the design calls for the superstructure of the bridge to be as shallow as it can be, Ernst said.

“All of these things have been looked at it,” he said. “This is the design that doesn’t adversely impact the vertical profile (of the road). It’s a bridge for vehicles.”

The vertical profile of the roadway is so limiting that the county expects to close the road completely during construction because there isn’t enough room for equipment, cars and people, he said.

“It’s the quickest way to get it done,” Ernst said.

As of Dec. 13, the day of the informational meeting, the project was slated to go out to bid early next year with a fall time frame for beginning the project. At least one member of the audience was concerned with the timing because the area in question is on the local school districts’ bus routes.

If other attendees have anything to say about the project, though, the father of three won’t have to worry. In the days after the meeting, calls for concerned residents and boaters to reach out to the Ocean County freeholders about the issue have been rampant. Social media posts continue to encourage interested parties to reach out to Ocean County Freeholder John P. Kelly, who is liaison to the engineering department.

Although the bridge replacement design dates back to 2009, more than three years before Superstorm Sandy, and the money earmarked for the project is from the state Department of Transportation, the freeholders must approve the work. That hasn’t been done yet beyond being authorized for a conceptual design, according to Ernst.

The county has earmarked roughly $1.6 million from the state transportation fund for the work to replace the Morris Boulevard bridge. All of the permits for the work have been secured, he said. If the money isn’t used in 2019, it’s possible the county would lose the funding for the project.

“It’s not that the bridge isn’t safe,” Ernst said, addressing a comment from the audience. “We’re being proactive in replacing bridges that are near the end of life. Some took a little longer.”

Part of the reason the Morris Boulevard bridge replacement wasn’t undertaken earlier is because of the $312 million federally funded Causeway expansion and rehabilitation project, he said.

The Causeway project to build a new bridge parallel to the existing one over the Manahawkin Bay began in 2013. Its main goal is to provide the safety of a redundant route on and off Long Beach Island. The new bridge is 2,400 feet long with a vertical clearance of 55 feet over Manahawkin Bay. Ultimately, it will function as the bridge for eastbound traffic once the project is completed, with the rehabilitated original bridge carrying westbound traffic.

— Gina G. Scala

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