New Highlands bridge price set at $70 million

DOT official expects construction to start in 2005, last 21/2 years

By Sherry conohan
Staff Writer

By Sherry conohan
Staff Writer

JERRY WOLKOWITZ Highlands is expected to replace the present Highlands-Sea Bright drawbridge with a 30-foot fixed span.JERRY WOLKOWITZ Highlands is expected to replace the present Highlands-Sea Bright drawbridge with a 30-foot fixed span.

HIGHLANDS — Those long waits on a hot summer day for a bridge opening will be gone when the borough’s bridge is replaced with a fixed span 30 feet higher than the present 69-year-old drawbridge.

Atul Shah, project manager for the bridge replacement for the state Department of Transportation, said construction of the new span is expected to begin in 2005 and take two and a half years to complete.

The cost is estimated at $70 million, he said.

The Highlands bridge, which connects Sea Bright with Highlands via Route 36, was built in 1933, according to DOT officials.

JERRY WOLKOWITZ The rust under the bridge is one cause for the safety concerns surrounding the Highlands-Sea Bright bridge.JERRY WOLKOWITZ The rust under the bridge is one cause for the safety concerns surrounding the Highlands-Sea Bright bridge.

They said its age and its low federal rating for serviceability (19 on a scale of 100) will make it eligible for federal funding, expected to cover at least 80 percent of the cost and perhaps 100 percent.

The average life of a bridge is 60 to 80 years, they said.

Plans for the new bridge were laid out for area residents at informal information sessions held in the Sea Bright borough hall and at the auditorium of Fort Hancock on Sandy Hook in the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Shah said the new bridge would be built a little to the south of the present bridge.

He said it would be 65 feet high, compared to the present 35 feet, and would be 30 feet wider — 93 feet compared to the present 63 feet.

Like the present bridge, the new span will have two lanes in either direction.

But it also will have an 8-foot-wide shoulder and a bicycle lane in each direction and an 8-foot-wide sidewalk on both sides of the bridge.

Shaw said the bridge structure itself will be 10 feet shallower than the present bridge, at 20 feet instead of 30 feet.

According to Shah, the abutment for the new bridge will be pushed back about 15 feet on the Highlands side and maybe a little more on the Sea Bright side. But, he said, the DOT is not taking any property to complete the project.

"We might have to adjust some driveways," he said. "But we aren’t taking anybody’s driveway away."

On the Sea Bright end of the bridge, Shah said, the three toll plazas at the entrance to the park on Sandy Hook will be replaced with five toll plazas.

He said the ramp to get to the park from the southbound lanes of Route 36 will go under the highway instead of over it and a bike path will parallel it.

"There is a proposed trail in the park," he noted.

"The funding is in place. They are waiting for an environmental clearance before construction starts," he said.

Richard Wells, the deputy superintendent of the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Recreation Area, said if all goes well, construction of the bike trail in the park will begin in spring.

He said the path will run about six miles to the ferry dock just beyond the auditorium at the north end of Fort Hancock.

As part of the redo of the entrance to the park, Wells added, the historic red brick gatehouse that was used by the Army will be restored and will be used during the summer for counting the money the toll takers collect.

The DOT and park officials said two more signs will be placed on the Garden State Parkway by next summer to alert beachgoers when the park closes because it has reached capacity so that they can make an adjustment and go to another beach. There is one such sign on the parkway now, they said.

Shah said the DOT hasn’t approved the actual locations for the two new signs yet, but they will be put in places that offer motorists more beach choices.

Monmouth County Freeholder Theodore J. Narozanick, who oversees transportation matters for the county and is chairman of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, said having the signs to alert beachgoers that the park is full will reduce traffic in the vicinity of the bridge.

"It’s going to have a major impact on Sandy Hook," he said.

"Some people are upset that they are going to lose their view," he added. "But overall, I think it’s great."

Leon Jaworski, who has a house on Hillside Avenue in Highlands, said he was going to be looking at the new bridge from his decks and was not happy.

"I think they’re going to end up doing what they want to do and what they have to do no matter what the public thinks," he said.

"I don’t think there’s enough people to get together to make a difference with our objections.

"That’s the price we have to pay for living where we do," he added.

Tom McCormack, who lives at the corner of Hillside Avenue and Portland Road in Highlands, said the new higher bridge would be more prominent in his view.

He said while he recognizes the existing bridge is in bad shape, he objects to the higher bridge being built for the sake of a handful of boat owners. He worried about its impact on downtown Highlands.

"I don’t think it’s to the betterment of the town of Highlands," he said.

Shah said the DOT understands there are only three or four sailboats berthed south of the bridge with masts too high to get through under the new bridge.

He observed that the Coast Guard originally had wanted a 100-foot-vertical clearance from the water for the bridge but has since agreed to the 65 feet.

"There are no major objections," he said to the present bridge plan.

Shah acknowledged that the grades on either side of the bridge leading to the peak at the center will be steeper than at present but said they meet department standards and would not be a hazard in rainy or snowy weather.

"The reason the grades are steeper is to minimize the impact on people in Sea Bright and Highlands," he said.

Bob Brakman, the traffic engineer for the project, said bridge openings with the present span hold up traffic for 12 minutes at a time, with stacking of vehicles going back half a mile.

He noted it opens every half hour during the summer and said sometimes traffic will move only eight minutes of every 30.

The heaviest traffic, he added, occurs between 10 and 11 a.m. on weekends in summer.

"After it opens, it takes time (for traffic) to clear," he said.

"The new bridge will improve the traffic flow."

Shah said the new bridge would be 40 feet south of the present bridge at the maximum distance.

He said the present drawbridge will remain open until the new one, which will be built in two stages, is ready to accept traffic.

Once the southern half of the new bridge is built, traffic will be moved over to those two lanes, with one lane in each direction, according to Shah.

He said the existing bridge will then be demolished and the other half of the new bridge built.

Shah said the Highlands bridge will be closed for half an hour here and there and may be closed, with advance notice, for an occasional night.

"But we are not going to be detouring traffic to the Rumson bridge for six [straight] months," he said.

Shah said they don’t know now what the bridge will look like.

"It’s in the concept stage," he explained.

But, he said, "it will be a historic bridge. We have to satisfy the state Historic Preservation Office."

Shah said it might incorporate elements in the design of the present bridge, such as parapets.

"It’s going to be an aesthetically pleasing bridge," he said with assurance.