BUY-IN ON NEW SEA BRIGHT BRIDGE ELUSIVE

Below, dozens of local residents turned out in Sea Bright Monday for a midday presentation of options for dealing with the “serious” condition of the Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge. (Click to enlarge)

By STACIE FANELLI

Sixty years old, the Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge over the Shrewsbury River is rapidly corroding, inadequate for today’s traffic loads and behind the times on accident safety. Its electrical system is the same one installed in 1952. It’s not up to snuff in terms of earthquake resistance, either.

In a word, Monmouth County engineering officials say, the bridge’s condition is “serious.”

Whether to spend an estimated $10 million to rehabilitate the bridge or some $50 million to replace it was the core question at a pair of public hearings held Monday in Sea Bright and Rumson. More than a dozen county officials and consultants were present at each to kick off a series of discussions aimed, they said, at “building consensus” on a solution.

But some residents of the two towns voiced skepticism that their concerns – which include the impacts of a new span on property values on the Rumson side and on the business district in Sea Bright – would be given much weight in the process.

“They seem to have it in mind to build a new bridge, and I just don’t want it destroying the neighborhood in the process,” said Tom Calvanico, who lives near the Rumson anchorage.

The bridge, designated S-32, was the focus of an open-house style meeting in Rumson Monday night, as well as at a separate meeting in Sea Bright earlier in the day. Thirteen members of the project team were on hand to answer questions about traffic, design, engineering and the environmental impact of several courses of action.

On the table are replacing the low drawbridge or building a high fixed bridge, which would mean road realignment and a possible loss of private property, officials acknowledged.

“Doing nothing is not an option. At some point, something has to be done,” Martine Culbertson, a community involvement facilitator hired by the county, told the Rumson audience.

But as in Sea Bright earlier, the Rumson Q&A session elicited concern over whether the community’s voices would actually matter in the final decision of the preferred alternative that will be presented to the federal government.

“This just reminds me of Sandy Hook,” said Rumson resident Phil Wagner, referring to the replacement of the Route 36 Highlands Bridge with the new Joe Azzolina Bridge. “Everybody was listened to and all of a sudden, hocus pocus, a decision was made.”

Jon Moren, the county’s principal engineer for bridges, repeatedly assured the audiences that no decision has been made regarding any aspect of the bridge’s construction, including whether construction will ever occur. And team members stressed that in order for the project to qualify for federal funding, Uncle Sam requires them to weigh all options. He encouraged residents to comment in writing with their objections to a fixed bridge.

While a drawbridge would allow for the structure to stay where it is, an issue of funding concerned the crowd. Glen Schetelich, project manager from the engineering firm Hardesty and Hanover, refuted the rumor that the federal government is not interested in funding movable bridges because of maintenance.

“It’s project by project,” he said. “I’ve worked on drawbridges that were replaced with drawbridges.”

The estimate is $10 million to repair only what has been damaged up until now. That does not include preventative construction or replacement, which could come with a budget of over $50 million, said Moren, who added that the county typically spends only $10 million per year on bridges altogether.

All funding is expected to come from the federal government, through the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, but only if the project team follows the procedures outlined by the National Environmental Policy Administration (NEPA), which include holding Monday’s public informational meetings.

The meeting “is one of the early litmus tests the Federal Highway Administration will take a look at,” Culbertson told the Rumson crowd.

A traffic survey will be conducted during the summer, the peak of bridge use, to address concerns about congestion.

Moren, who is also the project manager of the Oceanic Bridge project, said construction would not happen on both bridges at once. He confirmed that the current closure of the Oceanic is on schedule to end before next Memorial Day, which is when only the first phase of the Rumson-Sea Bright bridge would be completed.

If Rumson, Sea Bright and the county cannot reach a consensus, though, the team will have to go off course from the schedule put in place by NEPA and will lose its federal funding. The first phase of planning, “local concept development” is 18 months long and should end by April 2013. If everyone agrees on the type of bridge to build and how to do it, they will then go into the engineering, design and construction phases.

Members of the team could not comment on how long construction might last or when it would begin because no one has agreed that it will be built yet. But there seemed to be a consensus opposition to a completely new span.

“That bridge would have to be so huge that it would have to start at Holy Cross and end in the ocean. You would have to build a monstrosity,” said Rumson resident Ingeborg Perndorfer.

“Stakeholders,” which the officials said includes fire and police departments from both municipalities, Holy Cross School, the two hospitals, marinas, bordering towns and local business owners, already met with the project team earlier this month to discuss their apprehension. The most notable bullet was keeping the bridge open during construction.

The bridge is a vital part of the evacuation on Route 520, but community members cited the last time it underwent repairs as a main concern. It was the early 90s and the bridge was shut down entirely for about three months.

“Business in Sea Bright practically died,” said Rumson resident Jude Skowron.

The next public information meeting will be held in October, when the data collection is finished and the preferred alternative for the bridge will be presented, officials said.

Stacie Fanelli, a sophomore at Syracuse University, is a reporting and photography intern at redbankgreen