STAFFORD – While it might have seemed to take ages to the residents nearby, the Route 72 Manahawkin Bay Bridge project has actually made rapid progress, according to officials from the NJ Department of Transportation (NJDOT).
On May 22, NJDOT and Stafford Township officials came together for an official ribbon cutting, signaling the reopening of the Route 72 Manahawkin Bridge one year ahead of schedule. Held at the west end of East Bay Avenue on a small pavilion, officials lauded the efforts of those who came together to complete the rehabilitation of this iconic structure.
The weather complied, providing a beautiful perspective of the completed bridge as the background to the day’s events.
“The challenge to build bridges while people are still using them can raise an awful lot of extraordinary challenges, they met each and every one of them,” said Senator Christopher Connors (R-9), one of the speakers at the ribbon cutting.
As many locals have seen, the work on the bridge has caused lane closures and traffic buildups over the past few years since its inception. The Route 72 Manahawkin Bay Bridges Projects were advanced through multiple contracts, said Steve Shapiro of NJDOT, all performed in varying time frames.
The work began in May 2013 with the construction of a new Bay Bridge adjacent to the old one. This new bridge was completed by July 2016.
“Once that bridge was open, we could shift all the traffic there and begin the rehabilitation of the Old Causeway Bridge,” which began in 2016, Shapiro said.
The rehabilitation of the old bridge was completed a year ahead of schedule, he added.
As of May 2019, all lanes are open and ready for commuters and summer visitors.
“It does seem like a long time, it does take a long time to do the different pieces and we typically do them in a variety of contracts,” said Shapiro. In addition to the road construction contracts, NJDOT was also simultaneously working on a contract establishing the nature trail at Cedar Bonnet Island in Stafford Township.
With the Jersey Shore, including Long Beach Island, existing as a major summer destination for many, NJDOT had to account for the need for access while performing construction.
“One of the challenges of a project like this is basically maintaining traffic during the summer…we had to make sure that all the lanes that we have are open and available during the summer season,” which inevitably made work move a bit slower, said Shapiro.
It is also important to note that this bridge is the only ingress and egress between LBI and the mainland.
Now that the main portion of the bridge project is complete and ready for summer traffic, NJDOT can move on to smaller projects directly off the causeway.
Beginning in 2020, NJDOT will be making improvements to the Marsha Drive intersection in Stafford as well as improvements to 8th and 9th Avenues in Ship Bottom.
“We will be returning two-way traffic to those streets and widening the cross streets,” said Shapiro.
These projects are in the final stages of design and are expected to go out to bid in spring of 2020.
Present at the May 22 ribbon cutting were Stafford Mayor Gregory Myhre, Senator Christopher Connors (R-9), Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove (R-9), Freeholder Deputy Director Jack Kelly, Freeholder Gary Quinn, NJDOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, and Division Administrator of Federal Highway Robert Clark.
Assemblywoman Gove, a Long Beach Island native and former mayor, reminisced on her childhood experiences with the old causeway bridge.
“To me it truly is an engineering feat,” said Gove. “I remember as a little kid growing up…going over the old bridge, the wooden bridge,” which made a “clicky-clacky” sound as you drove over it.
Gove remembered a time when the most exciting news in town was the prospect of a new bridge, “and in 1957 we got it,” she said.
Over 60 years later and Gove is feeling that excitement all over again with the completion of the new Route 72 Manahawkin Bridge.
Sen. Connors also took a moment to reminisce, honoring his later father and former senator, Leonard Connors. Connors passed away in 2016, a mere three years before the completion of a project that was very near and dear to his heart.
“I know he’s looking down giving his blessings and deep appreciation,” said Sen. Connors.
Similar to Gove and Connors, NJDOT officials wanted the new bridge to represent the community and be a place where they can make memories.
“The project also has a lot of public space that is incorporated into it, which is not typical for most bridge projects,” said Shapiro.
The pavilion on which the ceremony was held was built as part of the bridge project for public recreation access, such as fishing. There is a pavilion built on both the island side and mainland side.
Not only this, but the addition of the Cedar Bonnet Island Trail located directly off the bridge as well as parking built for recreation purposes both add to the community feel.
“The Route 72 Manahawkin Bay Bridge project is an excellent example of how the New Jersey Department of Transportation and our contractors deliver projects that improve safety and positively benefit our communities,” said NJDOT’s Gutierrez-Scaccetti.
Work on the 3-mile, $319 million federally-funded bridge project is expected to be completed by 2022.