By JOHN T. WARD
What should be done about the crumbling Oceanic Bridge between Rumson and Middletown?
Area residents were offered dozens of options Tuesday as Monmouth County officials hit the reset button on an earlier process derailed by a change in federal regulations.
Monmouth County Engineer Joe Ettore fielded questions from attendees, including Kerry and Stephen Gassert, above. Below, the bridge, which opened in 1939, is deemed to be in ‘critical’ condition. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
The evening session, which drew an audience of about 50 to Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High, was the second of two in one day by the Monmouth County Engineering department to present conceptual plans for the replacement of the 78-year-old bridge, which officials say is in “critical” condition.
About 20 people turned out for an afternoon session held at the Middletown Township Public Library, said Todd Thompson, owner of a Locust garden business and co-founder of the Friends of the Oceanic Bridge advocacy group.
At each session, a cadre of engineers stood at easels, ready to field questions from attendees as they scanned aerial photos, architectural renderings and schematics showing a dozen or so possible new bridge alignments.
Some of the alignments are identical or close to the path followed by the existing span, while one concept envisioned the bridge a mile to the west, linking Browns Dock Road in Middletown with Buena Vista Avenue in Fair Haven.
“There are issues with that alignment,” said Jim Yeager, an engineer with the firm of Michael Baker International, which was hired to develop concept plans.
All but one of the bridges could be built in three possible heights above the high-tide level of the Navesink River, engineers said:
• 22 feet, which matches the clearance of the existing bridge
• 45 feet, which would allow for the passage of 97 percent of vessels that use the river, according to a survey
• 65 feet, matching the height of the nearby Captain Joe Azzolina Route 36 Bridge linking Highlands and Sea Bright across the Shrewsbury River.
In addition, some of the plans called for significant changes to the curving bridge approach on the Middletown side, which is considered “substandard” because of limited sight lines and other impairments, engineers said.
The existing span, built in 1939, is “structurally deficient, functionally obsolete, and is at the end of its service life,” the county says on a website dedicated to the project.
County Engineer Joe Ettore had said in the past that a replacement could cost in the area of $75 million, but that figure is no longer applicable, he emphasized to redbankgreen.
That’s because changes in the walk-up to possible federal funding for the project, which he called “by far the largest engineering project undertaken by the county in decades,” required that officials restart the process of design and community consensus-building begun a decade ago, he said.
“This is a clean slate,” Ettore said. “The process changed at the federal level from a ‘scoping’ process to a ‘local concept development’ process, and we had to start over.”
It’s too early to estimate what a new bridge would cost at this stage, when no decisions have been made, he said.
Federal rules require three submissions: a ‘no build’ option calling for repairs to the existing span; a rehabilitation plan with more extensive work; and a new bridge.
Rumson Councilman Ben Day told redbankgreen he was impressed by the number of visuals made available, which included renderings showing the various new-bridge options from multiple vantage points.
Those visuals will soon be posted on a website through which officials are soliciting comments, county officials said.
But Kerry Gassert, of Oakwood Lane, was unhappy about public notification of the meeting, which she said she learned about through a posting on redbankgreen Tuesday morning. (redbankgreen did not receive advance notice of the event from the county.)
Thompson, though, bemoaned “public apathy” about the project.
His preference, the Fair Haven resident said, is a bridge similar to the existing one, with Art Deco styling and a bascule drawbridge.
“What was the most beautiful car in 1939?” he asked. “The Packard. I want this to be rebuilt as the ’39 Packard of bridges.”
To reduce the impact on motorists, the bridge should open only on a preset schedule, rather than at the request of individual boaters, Thompson said, and boaters who call for it to be opened when they can pass underneath it while it’s closed should be fined.
Written comments will be accepted through August 4, and “we do take these comments seriously,” Ettore said.
Meantime, county and municipal officials are still ramping up for a new bridge to replace the Route 520 span linking Rumson and Sea Bright.
Construction of that bridge, projected to cost between $60 million and $70 million, is expected to begin in 2020, said Sarbjit Kahlon of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, which administers federal funding for the region.