Img_3116The Highlands Bridge as seen earlier this week, looking west from the Sandy Hook overpass.

Today’s Star-Ledger has a dire forecast for beachgoers heading home from Sandy Hook by car this weekend: “traffic stretching as far as the eye can see” as a result of construction work on the Highlands Bridge.

The outlook is somewhat better for the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins that have been vacationing in inland waters for nearly four weeks: their very own traffic cop. The state Department of Transportation has hired a “dolphin spotter” to keep a lookout for the pod should it decide that now’s a good time to finally head under the bridge and back toward the ocean, the Sledger reports.

Here’s the Sledger on the human traffic:

Tomorrow will mark the first time the sun-seeking, day-tripping masses who crowd the beaches and parking lots at the Sandy Hook section of Gateway National Recreation Area on summer weekends will have to funnel into a single lane when they cross the Highlands Bridge on their way home.

A long-planned $124.5 million replacement of the balky, Depression-era span began in earnest this week. Since Monday, traffic has been reduced from two lanes in each direction to just one.

“It’s a summer beach weekend, and the traffic will be heavy,” said Hollis Provins, the chief ranger at Sandy Hook. “Folks should consider avoiding that bridge if at all possible. They should plan to get to the park early and plan their departure for a time outside the normal hour or two in the afternoon when everyone else is leaving.”

Barricades have been set up to cram four lanes of traffic into two. Both north- and southbound traffic will share what’s now the the northbound half of the deck while the southbound lanes are demolished and half of the new span is built, a process that’s expected to take a year. The entire project is scheduled to wrap up in 2011.

Separately, the Sledger reports that the DOT will have a dolphin spotter on duty one day next week to keep and eye out for the mammals, which can only reach the ocean by passing beneath the bridge.

The spotter will be on hand while work crews drive piles into the floor of the Shrewsbury River in preparation for construction, DOT spokeswoman Erin Phalon told the paper.

During next week’s test, the spotter will observe the condition of the dolphins if they’re seen in the area. Crews will be ordered to stop work if the dolphins appear to be stressed or negatively impacted, Phalon said.

“This is an attempt to balance the safety of the dolphins and public safety and the need to replace the bridge,” Phalon said.

The DOT will pick up the tab for the spotter, which is expected to be about $2,000, Phalon said.

Details have yet to be worked out on whether the observer will be land-based or in a boat.

A spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the Ledger that there has not been a confirmed sighting of the mammals since Tuesday. But a jet-skiing friend of redbankgreen tells us they were still out on the Navesink River just west of the Oceanic Bridge Thursday afternoon.

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