TOMS RIVER – It’s the second year of the closure of the Route 37 bridge to Seaside, but officials are wondering how to deal with traffic from unseasonably warm days and big draw events such as the Polar Bear Plunge and St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The next test of an influx of traffic will come with the Saturday, February 25 plunge to benefit Special Olympics, the Polar Bear Plunge, which fills the beach, boardwalk and bars with onlookers and participants taking a dip in the Atlantic.
Check in is 9 a.m. and the plunge is at 1 p.m., but it’s a daylong event that drives heavy traffic to Seaside Heights to support the charity, test the waters and have some fun.
Last year, 6,000 “plungers” registered and raised $1.7 million, in an event that grows every year.
With the main corridor into Seaside now sharing one bridge instead of two, traffic signs have begun to flash down Route 37 warning local traffic of the potential delays due to February 25’s Polar Bear Plunge and plan accordingly.
A second traffic sign between Coolidge and Garfield avenues on Route 37 eastbound in Toms River warn of the merge from the three lanes of traffic down to one as drivers head onto the westbound span to travel east to the barrier island.
Toms River barrier island residents spoke at the February 21 council meeting saying that traffic problems exist even in days without heavy traffic.
Councilwoman Maria Maruca, who represents the ward that includes the barrier island, said that while the warmer weather experienced last weekend was enjoyable, it did create a traffic backlog and she wanted to look ahead to the demands for events such as the plunge and the parade.
She asked if township police could work alongside barrier island police to help with traffic concerns and if the state Department of Transportation could provide any solutions. The bridge renovation is a state DOT project and Route 37 is a state road.
Toms River Police Chief Mitch Little said his officers would be on alert to respond as needed during the traffic rush, saying that these events unfortunately made for the highest demand right before the event would occur as everyone tries to get over the bridge.
Residents expressed frustration that while the merge signs existed, the set-up also allowed for local traffic to use the last U-turn before the bridge or the Aqu Blue parking lot. That meant some drivers were using those to bypass the traffic illegally, or ride those lanes and then cut in to the queue of traffic in the left lane at the last moment as it went over the bridge.
Little said he’d see if cones or another traffic element would help, but the traffic backup was also due in part to work on the easternmost section of the closed bridge tying up Route 37 on Pelican Island as it changed when the road reverted back to its separate, multiple lanes.
The $56.4-million project repairs the eastbound Mathis bridge, upgrading its deck and substructure.
To complete the work, winter traffic is diverted onto the Tunney bridge, the westbound span. The Tunney span was set up all winter for both directions of traffic.
The construction cycle requiring a full closure of the Mathis Bridge is limited to November 1 to April 30 each year. During each of these construction cycles, summer traffic from approximately May 15 to September 15 will not be affected and all three current lanes on each bridge would be open to traffic.
But in the off-season, the Mathis Bridge closes, and eastbound lanes are diverted onto the Tunney Bridge.
The major NJDOT project will shutter the Mathis span for three consecutive winters as crews completely replace the decking and drawbridge. The bridge will remain its same height, but when the project is complete will have new lanes and paving, an upgraded construction and new mechanism in its drawbridge.
The traffic shift and construction will take place in the off-season months of November through April, and conclude in April 2018.
Normally, there are three eastbound travel lanes on the Mathis Bridge and three westbound lanes on the adjacent Tunney Bridge open, but traffic will compress entirely onto the three lanes of the Tunney Bridge during the next three off-seasons. One lane will be eastbound, and two will be for westbound traffic.
All six lanes of the two bridges will be open as normal from mid-May through October of 2016 and 2017.
If construction continues as planned, the NJDOT expects the project to be completed by the spring of 2018.