Oceanic Bridge Study Rebooted

June 29, 2017
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By John Burton

RUMSON — It’s back to the drawing board, quite literally, for the Oceanic Bridge and its future.

After years of discussion and scoping meetings conducted by various federal, state and county officials over what should be done with County Bridge S-31, those officials have begun the process anew. That started with two public outreach sessions conducted on Tuesday, June 20, where those officials gathered at Middletown Public Library in the afternoon and then at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School, Rumson, in the evening. At those two sessions, representatives from the governmental entities involved, as well as from the engineering firm working with the officials, were on hand to outline where things are with the process and elicit input from stakeholders and the public at large for the eventual work that has to be done to the aging and deteriorating county bridge.

“This is a new process,” explained Joseph Ettore, Monmouth County engineer. The reason, he said, is because the process has changed on the federal level, given federal transportation officials have established new guidelines.

That required officials to again seek the public’s views on what should be done.

At the high school session, Michael Sidani, project manager, and Jim Yeager, assistant project manager, both with the Michael Baker International engineering firm, offered some details about what is under consideration for the bridge.

The project is currently in the local concept development stage, explained Martine Culbertson, community involvement facilitator, the first of an expected four-stage process.

As they accept public comments, planners have a series of eight alternatives they are considering for what should be done for the bridge that dates back to 1939. Those plans range from keeping the existing bridge in its current state to a rehabilitation plan that would have upgrade work done to the existing structure. Another plan would have a new bridge built about a mile from the existing bridge site, while allowing the current bridge to be used during construction. There are also plans under consideration for a couple of half-on/half-off-type of projects, meaning the new bridge would be done in stages, allowing traffic to continue, while portions are closed, and others that are variations of the different proposals. Some of the plans also include widening the bridge, allowing for shoulders and sidewalks on both sides.

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“Obviously, some of these are sensitive,” Culbertson said, referring to the various projects. She acknowledged that the plans that call for moving the bridge to other points may very likely mean acquiring people’s property.

Also under consideration is whether the structure should remain a relatively low bascule, drawbridge-type that has to open to allow boats or become a higher (possibly as tall as 65 feet), fixed-span structure that would allow most vessels to pass underneath without having to stall vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

That portion of the discussion has been an issue of contention for residents on both the Middletown and Rumson side of the bridge. In past iterations, residents have expressed fear over the existing bridge being replaced by a towering fixed-span type. Homeowners worry that would rob the areas of the historic quality of the existing bridge, impact some homeowners’ view of the Navesink River, and could have a detrimental impact on property values for homes in the bridge’s vicinity.

About 13 years ago residents formed a not-for-profit 501(c)(4) entity, Friends of the Oceanic Bridge.

Richard McOmber, a resident of Middletown’s Locust section, is vice president of the friends group. He said the organization “strongly supports” and will continue to lobby for a bridge “that reflects the character” of the existing bridge, in keeping with its historic aesthetics, but with modern technological upgrades.

“What was the coolest car in 1939?” asked Todd Thompson, owner of a flower shop in Locust who is president of the group. “The Packard,” he answered his own question. “What we want is a 1939 Packard but with all the modern developments, a catalytic converter.”

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The public has 45 days, until Aug. 4, to submit comments. That period was extended from the traditional 30 days to accommodate vacations and the July 4 holiday, said Culbertson.

Officials hope to have the first stage completed by late fall. However, Culbertson pointed out, “It’ll be six to eight years, on the positive side, before you see a bridge out there.”

There weren’t any estimates available this week as to cost, but those working with the project expect to have it covered by federal and state transportation funds.

The Oceanic Bridge, at 2,752 feet, is Monmouth County’s largest drawbridge. The drawbridge was first built in 1891 and then replaced in 1939 under the federal Depression-era Works Progress Administration. It spans the Navesink River, connecting Rumson to Locust and carries an estimated 12,000 vehicles daily, as well as pedestrians.

The condition of the bridge is deemed “serious,” by officials, due to age, wear and rust. That led county officials to close the bridge for the 2011-12 fall and winter as the mechanical components were replaced and overhauled and pilings were reinforced for safety concerns.

This article was first published in the June 22-29, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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