THE BRIDGE TO SUMMER SUCCESS?

highlands-bridge1The state DOT has plans to ease traffic jams at the Sea Bright-Highlands bridge construction site this summer. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

In 34 years doing business on Ocean Avenue in Sea Bright, Steve Garelli says he’s learned one thing when it comes to preparing for the summer rush, which is unofficially upon us this Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s all about the weather,” said Garelli, owner of Steve’s Breakfast & Lunch.

But in recent summers, Garelli, like many other business owners in the seaside hamlet, has learned one more thing: cranes and dump trucks can wipe out abundant sunshine rather quickly.

The construction of the Route 36 Highlands bridge, which connects Highlands to the Sea Bright/Sandy Hook peninsula and funnels traffic into the Gateway National Recreation Area, plagued local businesses last summer and wreaked havoc on motorists.

Now that the 65-foot high bridge is near completion — two lanes are operational, and two more are being added — local merchants are hopeful, but skeptical, that traffic will flow better, both on the road and in their stores this summer.

The state Department of Transportation, which heads the $124 million project, says it has a plan to accomplish that end.

“I hope so,” said Kathleen Brooks, owner of Something Fishy, a seafood market and restaurant at the bridge’s eastern anchorage. “I really need it.”

Brooks’s sales were down 43 percent last summer, she said. Most of it, she said, could be attributed to the heavy traffic in the area, because the last thing anybody wanted to do after sitting in heat and traffic was sit down and eat with a view of the traffic they’d have to wade back into.

The season was marked by drivers idling in logjams for hours trying to get out of Sandy Hook. In downtown Sea Bright, it wasn’t much better, Garelli said.

“We’ve stood here and watched the gridlock, literally, for hours,” Garelli said. “And all you have is pissed-off drivers.”

One major difference this year is that the new 65-foot high bridge, since it’s so tall, won’t cause back-ups because there’s no drawbridge being raised to stop traffic for. That alone should help mitigate traffic jams, Mayor Maria Fernandes said.

But Garelli, like Brooks, has an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it outlook. Garelli said the bridge’s two lanes converging to one in Sea Bright will still likely cause a certain amount of bottlenecking.

The state has a list of actions it’s taking make travel less of a nightmare. Police officers will be at several traffic signals to direct traffic flow; there will be a 4-minute light cycle going into and out of Sandy Hook; and lights can be remotely controlled to adjust for heavy traffic flow, said DOT spokesman Tom Greeley.

These steps, plus a new traffic pattern to enter and exit the Hook, should make for a pretty good summer business-wise, Fernandes said.

“The open span bridge is a lot better. It’ll be a steady flow,” she said. “The businesses should be OK.”

Tom Giglio, owner of Giglio’s Bait & Tackle, thinks so, too. Spring has brought a good business and he has high hopes for summer — so long as that BP disaster doesn’t make it’s way up the Atlantic, he said.

“Last year was rough with the traffic,” he said. “That seems to have been worked out this year. It looks like it’s going to be better.”

Work on the bridge will be suspended this weekend as part of a statewide halt of all road and bridge construction projects to reduce the need for temporary lane closures Memorial Day weekend. It went into effect at 6a Friday; work will resume at noon on Tuesday.

To read the DOT’s summer traffic action plan, click here: njdot.

Fernandes says Memorial Day weekend usually serves as the bellwether in Sea Bright. But already, she thinks it’s going to be busy.

The borough set a record for beach badge sales, with 718, after offering them at half-price leading up to the beach season (they’re full-price again). The borough hadn’t even averaged half that number in prior years, Fernandes said.

“For the town, it’s a lot better because there’ll be a lot more people in town and they usually spend at least a little bit of money” locally, she said.

In other summer news, Fernandes said the state boat regulation commission approved a change to boating rules on the Shrewsbury River. There is a slow speed/no wake law in effect for any watercraft traveling between the south end of the bridge to Sedge Island (a.k.a. Buoy 28), from shore to shore. Fernandes said last year larger boats were leaving wakes that tipped over kayakers and smaller boats. Marine police will be out enforcing the new rule and issuing summonses, she said.