Ocean County officials are joining with a growing chorus of concerned elected officials that are asking the state to help fix problems and possibly provide an alternative traffic pattern should the Thomas A. Mathis Bridge, which carries traffic east bound onto the northern barrier island, malfunction again.
“Certainly we understand an aging span like this can have its problems but the bridge has already malfunctioned three times this summer season causing extensive traffic backups and safety concerns throughout many areas of Ocean County,” said Vicari, who serves as liaison to tourism. “We need to quickly create an alternate traffic plan in order to keep traffic and emergency vehicles moving on and off that island.”
In a letter dated Aug. 4 to state Department of Transportation Commissioner Richard T. Hammer, Vicari noted he was joining with state 10th District Legislators to support their efforts and find a solution to the problem.
“On Saturday, (July 30) a problem with the bridge gate resulted in the bridge being closed to traffic for about two hours,” Vicari said. “No one needs to be reminded that this is the heaviest travel period on a summer weekend. People sat for hours in traffic. This is not how we want to present our County to our visitors and our residents.”
Freeholder Virginia E. Haines said the Route 37 bridges both serve as vital arteries in Ocean County moving thousands and thousands of people on and off the northern barrier islands.
“I agree with our 10th District legislators that the breakdowns are ‘unacceptable’ and the DOT needs to fix whatever is causing the malfunction as quickly as possible,” she said. “With tourists doubling our population, keeping this bridge in good working order is imperative to public safety.”
Ocean County Sheriff Michael G. Mastronardy said the Sheriff’s Department on Saturday insured resources were staged properly on the barrier island to make certain emergencies could be responded to during the time the bridge was closed to traffic.
“We worked with Toms River police and police on the barrier island,” Mastronardy said. “Our greatest concern is being able to respond to an emergency.”
Opened to traffic in 1950, the bridge, which is under the jurisdiction of the state DOT, is currently undergoing a $74 million federally-funded renovation project that includes replacing the existing bridge deck on the Mathis Bridge, which is 65 years old, make safety improvements to the barrier and railings, and repair and replace mechanical and electrical components that operate the moveable lift span, according to the DOT.
Construction is anticipated to take place for three seasons and is expected to be completed by the summer of 2018. The construction cycle requiring a full closure of the Mathis Bridge will be limited to Nov. 1 to April 30 each year, according to the DOT. During each of these construction cycles, summer traffic from approximately May 15 to Sept. 15 will not be affected and all three current lanes on both the east and west bound bridges will be open to traffic.
Vicari stated that since the eastbound bridge serves as a gateway for miles of beaches and businesses that rely on tourism, unplanned and unannounced bridge closures like the one on July 30 cause havoc for summer business owners many of whom are mom and pop family operated stores and cafes.
“When people are inconvenienced like this they will often think twice about coming back,” said Vicari during the Aug. 3 freeholder meeting. “We want people to know we are doing all we can to make certain the state is hearing our concerns and addressing them.”
Vicari noted the next five weeks are crucial to the tourism season.
“Tourism is a $4.6 billion economic engine in Ocean County that helps create more than 60,000 jobs,” Vicari said. “We cannot have a traffic problem in Toms River that because of a ripple effect, results in traffic tie-ups across several towns.”
Vicari said he has met with mayors and business owners on the barrier island after the bridge malfunction.
Freeholder Deputy Director Gerry P. Little said he applauds the efforts of the legislators along with local mayors and business owners to work together to correct this problem.
“We support the efforts of our legislators. We also believe an alternate traffic plan needs to be developed and in place in order to avoid these problems should another malfunction occur,” he said.
Vicari said alternatives are available.
“The state needs to implement them,” he said.
Vicari added that in the past he has advocated for a new fixed bridge to replace the aging span.
“The future may call for a new bridge to replace the one that is there,” Vicari said.