Bridge advocates lose bid to delay project

Opponents file for injunction in state court


Opponents of the state’s Highlands bridge replacement project lost a bid to hold up work slated to begin Feb. 10 on the historic drawbridge.

Sea Bright-Highlands bridge Sea Bright-Highlands bridge Attorneys for the borough of Sea Bright and local grassroots group Citizens for Rational Coastal Development (CRCD) filed an injunction in December to stop the N.J. Department of Transportation (DOT) from going forward with the replacement of the 75- year-old bridge that joins the boroughs of Highlands and Sea Bright.

On Feb. 4, U.S. District Court Judge Joel A. Pisano denied the request for a stay pending a decision on an injunction that would have prohibited the DOT, which had already awarded a contract for the bridge work, from proceeding until he could comprehensively review the merits of the case further, according to Stuart Lieberman, of Lieberman & Blecher, counsel for CRCD.

“He [Pisano] found that he did not believe that the risk was imminent and that even though they [DOT] were going to start working now, that they weren’t going to touch the bridge for probably a year,” said Lieberman Tuesday.

He said one of the requirements for granting the stay is to prove that there is a risk of imminent harm.

“He [Pisano] also found that at this time, the government [argument] did appear to him to be valid and that while that requires a much more comprehensive assessment, he believed that there was a strong likelihood that at the end of the day, he would vote in favor of the government. So at this stage, he wasn’t willing to give us an injunction,” Lieberman continued.

The 38-page injunction followed a Sept. 21 lawsuit filed by CRCD in U.S. District Court, naming the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, the DOT and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as defendants.

The complaint asked the court to invalidate the award of federal funds for the DOT project, which would demolish the existing drawbridge and replace it with a fixed-span bridge. The plaintiffs are also seeking a public hearing and an environmental impact study of the project.

The DOT started accepting bids in November after receiving all necessary local and environmental approvals to move forward on the project and awarded the contract to low bidder J.H. Reid General Contractor of South Plainfield for $124.5 million, according to DOT spokeswoman Erin Phalon.

Construction is scheduled to begin Feb. 10 and will last for about 34 months with an anticipated completion date of December 2010, according to DOT spokesman Tim Greeley.

“The project will utilize night construction to mitigate traffic impacts. Initially the construction will be limited to the erection of construction signage and contractor mobilization, followed by the construction of a temporary intersection in Sea Bright, after which construction of the new south structure will begin,” said Greeley in an e-mail Tuesday, adding, “The existing bridge will remain open and intact during construction of the south structure. Once the south structure is completed, traffic will be shifted onto the new span and the old bridge will be demolished. Our current schedule calls for that to happen in September 2009.”

Greeley said previously that the DOT had no comment on the injunction due to pending litigation

“We are not giving up until every possible option that’s available to us has been explored. These things usually take a lot of effort before you win. It’s not uncommon to be unsuccessful your first go-around because there are hard cases,” said Lieberman.

Lieberman is already at work crafting a new plan of attack with a request for an injunction filed in the state court Appellate Division and a similar request filed in state Superior Court in Freehold.

“The state injunction came about … two and a half weeks ago, and that is that it looks like Highlands didn’t pass any resolutions for a bunch of property that it conveyed to the DOT,” said Lieberman.”

Last year, the Highlands Borough Council voted to swap a parcel of Green Acres property next to the bridge for another piece of property, according to Janine

Bauer, transportation and environmental attorney, who is counsel for the borough of Sea Bright.

She noted previously that obtaining the Green Acres property was an obstacle the DOT needed to clear, and the action Highlands took had to go before the State House Commission, which has to decide if the property is being swapped appropriately.

Lieberman said the filing in the state court Appellate Division is against the State House Commission and its decision to allow the swap.

He said, “The one in the Appellate Division, which is also state court, is against the State House Commission and there we are asking them to invalidate the decision … to convert Green Acres-protected property so that it could be used for the bridge.”

The second filing in state Superior Court, Monmouth County, is for another relief relating to the Highlands property transfers, according to Lieberman.

“We also have a case in Monmouth County asking the court to invalidate the property transfers, conveyances from Highlands to DOT,” said Lieberman. “[It] asks the judge to invalidate the sale because the town sold the property to the state, we think, illegally.”

Lieberman said the fight to oppose the DOT’s controversial plan for the demolition of the drawbridge and its replacement with a 30-foot-higher fixed bridge is about the appreciation of cultural artifacts.

“This is a really sad story about the government just not caring about culture. Go to Italy, go to France, go to China and see how they care about their historic artifacts and then go to the United States, and as soon as they can tear things down, they tear it down and rebuild them with the newest, latest model, ignoring everything that is culturally significant in this country,” said Lieberman.

He added, “This bridge is very near and dear to the hearts of thousands of people who are used to every day seeing it. It’s part of those communities and it’s a darn shame that the federal government thinks that it can come into these communities and just take this history away, strip it away, with no regard for the appreciation for all the people have for these artifacts. This is a travesty that’s going on, and we need people to continue to be interested in this because the fight isn’t over until it’s over.”