Trestle Bridge Decay Result of Spring Storms; Intermittent Lane Closures Possible Westbound

$500,000 in Emergency Work Underway
By GINA G. SCALA | Jun 13, 2018
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

New Jersey Department of Transportation contractors this week shifted traffic patterns again on the Causeway, closing a westbound lane to perform emergency work to fix the weakening slopes near the West Thorofare Bridge. Agency officials said the severity of spring storms accelerated the atrophy to such a point the integrity of the roadway shoulder and guard rail was threatened.

“The deterioration is not occurring at the main bridge but at the west abutment of the West Thorofare Bridge, one of the three trestle bridges. Severe erosion from stormwater runoff traveling down and along the embankment is washing away soil from under the shoulder and around the guardrail,” Steve Schapiro, DOT director of communications, said recently.

He said the some $500,000 in emergency work will bolster the slope. Additional work to reroute the runoff to prevent erosion will be performed without impacting traffic, Schapiro said.

“The stabilization will result in a gentler slope of the embankment,” he added, noting the work on the eastbound side of the trestle bridge was completed earlier than anticipated and both lanes were opened to inbound traffic at approximately 6:30 p.m. June 7.

The westbound right lane is expected to be closed from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. through the evening of Thursday, June 14 and again next week from Monday, June 18 through Thursday, June 21. Traffic flowing off the Island will be able to use the left lane during that time.

“However, in an effort to reduce potential backups, there is a possibility that both lanes can be maintained with only intermittent closures of the right lane,” he said. “Work will begin at the West Thorofare and as the operation moves west, we are exploring the possibility of repositioning the crane in the acceleration/deceleration lane so the right lane can be open most of the time with intermittent closures when the crane has to swing to pick up the sheets.”

The crane’s counterweight protrudes about 5 feet into the closed lane so it might be possible to swing the crane parallel to the road, allowing for a quick reopening of the lane in the event emergency vehicles need to pass, he said.

“State Police will be on hand to further assist with emergency vehicles traveling through the work zone,” Schapiro said.

Local Reaction:

Concern, Dismay

Joe Valyo, Ship Bottom emergency management coordinator and a borough councilman, said recently no one in the gateway community had been told about the emergency work.

“We’re scrambling to get a handle on the scope of it,” he said in his capacity as emergency management coordinator. “Why didn’t we know three months ago? We wouldn’t have liked it, but we would have accepted it if we’d been told there was imminent danger.”

Schapiro said repair designs vary case by case.

“Sometimes, repairs are simple and can be performed quickly. Other times various factors, such as complexity of the design, proximity of utilities, weather, site constraints or environmental restrictions, can slow the process,” he said.

In May, Jeff A. Bassano, resident engineer for two of the bridge contracts, sent an email to Ship Bottom officials disclosing two separate requests for temporary daytime lane closures on the Causeway. The first request came from George Harms Construction, which is performing the bulk of the work on the old Causeway bridge. The request is to pour concrete during daylight hours for a better finished project. DOT officials have not said whether this project will be greenlighted on their end, despite having been given the go-ahead by Stafford Township officials late last month.

The second request, according to Bassano’s May 18 email, was for lane closures so contractors could drive metal sheeting into the bay floor. He gave the reasoning for the request as the noise factor, which was later confirmed by Stafford Township officials. While no longer the sole reason for the work, according to Schapiro, it is still mentioned in communications with the state agency.

“We scaled back the work hours to no more than 14 hours a day as a compromise to working around the clock,” he said, adding the concession was for Stafford Township residents who would be directly affected by the noise from driving sheet piles. “They are contending with both noise and traffic. We are monitoring traffic conditions, which are nowhere near the volume of traffic usually seen during the peak of the summer. To date we have witnessed only a slight increase in travel times because of the work.”

But that slight increase in travel time came when the work was being performed eastbound. Traffic snarls eastbound will push back farther onto Route 72, which could be problematic for some, but there are alternate routes to other areas of Stafford Township. For motorists traveling from west of the Garden State Parkway, the McKinley Avenue extension can carry motorists looking to take Route 9 north or south. From Mud City and Beach Haven West, East Bay Avenue to Hilliard Boulevard is the preferred way to get to Route 9.

However, there are no alternate routes on Long Beach Island. A temporary lane closure on the westbound Causeway, during the peak summer season or the run-of-the-mill Tuesday, still means traffic on the 18-mile barrier island, coming from the north and south since Ship Bottom funnels all traffic on and off the Island.

On Monday, Ship Bottom police issued a Nixle alert reminding motorists of the lane closures and asking everyone to be courteous should traffic ensue.

“Emergency services always prepares for the worst and hopes for the best,” Valyo said, noting hurricane season began June 1. It runs through Nov. 1. “A lot of the times the worst doesn’t happen. But our job is to be prepared for everything. Why allow it to happen if it could be prevented? If the worst happens people will be pointing fingers.”

A large percentage of firemen live on the mainland and for them to respond to an emergency on the Island, it’s imperative they have the ability to get over the Causeway quickly, Valyo said. Similarly, he added, the Island communities rely heavily on mutual aid from mainland fire companies.

“We get a fire here, within one or two alarms, we’re calling for Stafford Township, Barnegat Township, Tuckerton,” he said.

Valyo said a lot of the questions and concerns the LBI community has about the temporary daytime lane closures could have been addressed and better planned for if the meetings with the state had continued. Instead, he said there’s been no communication with the state.

“They knew what the reaction would be – unacceptable. I know s*** happens. I get that,” he said, adding, “The welfare of the Island depends on how Ship Bottom handles it. A local emergency, in my mind, is the foremost reason not to close lanes.”

Valyo isn’t the only one airing concerns. Last week, Long Beach Township Police Chief Anthony Deeley and Ship Bottom Police Chief Paul Sharkey addressed their frustrations and concerns with the situations. Later in the week, Leslie Houston, former Long Beach Township deputy police chief, used social media to encourage the public and members of emergency services to write to Ninth District legislators with their concerns.

“The lane closure was somewhat surprising. At the least, it’s inconvenient,” state Sen. Chris Connors (R-9th) said, noting his office is doing its best to address local concerns with the appropriate state officials. “It’s one thing to get on the Island and another to get off. There are safety issues.”

For years, local officials fought to get funding to fix the bridge, he said. There is a consequence to undertaking such a large job with complicated engineering, Connors said. When there is only one way on and off a barrier island, no time is going to be a good time for a lane closure, he added.

“They don’t see what a mess it is,” Connors said of state officials, noting the backups on Central and Barnegat avenues north toward Surf City and south in Ship Bottom. “The last time they did this (daytime lane closures) it was a big issue.”

While the long-term benefits of the Causeway expansion and rehabilitation project cannot be understated neither can the effects of any temporary daytime lane closures from May through September.

“It is crazy, it’s asinine. It’s just plain wrong. W-R-O-N-G. Wrong,” Valyo said.

Whether the state will have ongoing restrictions during the lane closures is unclear. Currently, operators of wide loads are instructed to contract local police for an escort across the bridge. Also unclear is whether the state plans to move ahead with lane closures through the summer as part of a second request for daytime closures to allow for a better finished product in 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.

“The Route 72 Manahawkin Bay Bridges project has multiple contracts and a variety of work,” Schapiro said. “The portion of the project that had the most effect to the area is either mostly complete or well underway.”

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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