BEESLEY'S POINT - It can be a "delicate balancing act" for transportation officials trying to handle Jersey Shore drivers - how to accommodate them on the Garden State Parkway in both the short run and the long run.
Construction to widen and make other improvements on the parkway - the main north-south artery most utilized by tourists and locals in the southern shore region - has been ongoing for years, often creating traffic woes for summertime drivers.
And for at least two more summers, drivers on the southern section of the Garden State Parkway may be inconvenienced by construction that includes a $192.7 million bridge replacement and refurbishment project over the Great Egg Harbor Bay and Drag Channel.
Known as the Great Egg Harbor Bridge, the structure is actually two spans that run for about a mile and a half over the waterway and is a vital link between Atlantic County and Cape May County.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which oversees the operation of the parkway, in August opened a new 3,840-foot bridge over the bay that had been under construction since 2013. The new design includes a pedestrian walkway that runs the length of the new span and will allow hiking, biking, and fishing between Somers Point in Atlantic County and the Beesley's Point section of Upper Township in Cape May County.
"I think we could have a very unique situation here for tourists and locals to enjoy this bridge as more than just as transportation link," said Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo. "It'll be the only bridge along the entire length of the parkway someone could walk or bike across."
But the project still isn't quite finished - and won't be until 2019 - and the pedestrian walkway won't open until then, according to Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the authority.
Feeney admits contractors ran into a couple of glitches, including one in the summer of 2015 that tied up Shore traffic for several days when a massive concrete beam rolled off the back of a truck when it was being lifted by a crane.
It cracked, and the piece was so huge and heavy that workers had to break it up on the ground where it had landed to get it out of there. With laborers working round the clock, it took more than two days.
"The bridge was reduced by one lane for the duration and the backups were significant," Feeney said.
Even off season, the construction can be a hassle for drivers.
This past September - post high tourist season - just after one section of the new project opened, a "cutover" was being built for northbound traffic to use. But unusually nice weather created heavier-than-expected traffic and created another significant back-up in the area, Feeney said.
"We take lane closures very seriously as we have worked on this project," Feeney said, noting that the contractor ended up changing the project schedule to avoid weekend lane closures through mid-October.
The new bridge, which is temporarily accommodating both southbound and northbound traffic until the project is finished, replaces one that had been built in 1954, when this section of the parkway first opened. Over the next two years, the 63-year-old structure will be dismantled.
A span built parallel to the original bridge, which opened in 1973, served as the northbound lanes and will be repaired. It will continue to be used for the northbound traffic.
The cost for building the new span and also demolishing the Beesley's Point Bridge - a small local toll bridge that sat along Route 9 parallel to the parkway - was $142.9 million. The work was done by Route 52 Constructors, a joint venture company operated by Richard E. Pierson Construction Co. and F.C. Wagman Inc. The cost for rehabilitating the northbound span and demolishing the old southbound span will be $49.8 million and is being completed by Richard E. Pierson Construction Co.
Though the new multimillion-dollar structure won't actually increase the number of lanes in either direction, Feeney said it is expected to allow traffic to move more smoothly through the region because of wider lanes. There is also enough room on the new southbound side for an emergency lane.
Feeney said engineers opted not to add lanes because the parkway there hasn't been widened to three lanes along the 38-mile southern portion between the Atlantic City Expressway interchange and Cape May.
When the new pedestrian walkway opens, it may become as much of an attraction as the Route 52 Causeway between Somers Point and Ocean City, where tens of thousands of visitors a year utilize a 2½-mile pedestrian lane for walking, jogging, fishing, and sightseeing.
"I think that projects along our bridges and byways like this one creates an opportunities for visitors to enhance their stay and for residents of the region to get out and experience the outdoors," said Diane F. Wieland, director of the Cape May County Tourism Department.
On the Atlantic County side of the project, in Somers Point, old pilings from the Beesley's Point Bridge will be used to build a walkway to a fishing area along the Drag Island Channel, which runs parallel to the bay. The shallows have long been a popular fishing spot.
On the Beesley's Point, Upper Township side, officials want to expand an existing parking lot and small bay beach adjacent to entrance to the bridge's pedestrian walkway. A plan to utilize another spot owned by a private utility company near the entrance was abandoned when some arrowheads and other Native American artifacts were found there, Palombo said.
But Angus Kress Gillespie, a professor of American studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the coauthor of a book called Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike, said finding such ancient relics when roadways and the areas around them are developed is an important but not necessarily rare find in the Garden State.
"It isn't surprising that they've come across Native American artifacts with regard to this project and many others in the state," Gillespie said. "It's always a delicate balancing act to respect the history of Native Americans while pushing ahead with our expanding infrastructure needs."