By Donald Wittkowski
Whenever the traffic lights on the 34th Street Bridge turn red, an electronic message sign warns drivers that they will have to wait up to five minutes.
The frustration of being stuck there for so long is exacerbated when the sign begins counting down, second by agonizing second, during the final minute.
“Sixty, 59, 58, 57 …”
The wait seems interminable until the countdown hits zero and the light finally flashes green, allowing motorists to get underway again.
Drivers have had to tolerate these delays for the last two years while the 54-year-old bridge connecting Ocean City with Marmora in Upper Township has been under construction as part of a $6.6 million refurbishment of its road deck.
But soon, the bridge project will be finished once and for all, which means the lane restrictions and concrete construction barriers will disappear. The two temporary traffic signals that have been placed on the bridge to control the flow of vehicles during the construction work will be gone, too – for good.
“The red light on the bridge is starting to fade,” Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster said figuratively of the project’s imminent completion.
Foster said the construction barriers will be removed during the week of April 16. The remaining part of the bridge work is scheduled to be completed by early May.
“It means that the delays and extra times that motorists have had to deal with for the last two years will finally be over,” said Fourth Ward Councilman Bob Barr, who represents the southern part of Ocean City, including the area surrounding the 34th Street Bridge.
Built in 1964, the 34th Street Bridge is the most heavily traveled span owned by Cape May County, used by an average of 20,000 vehicles each day, Foster said.
It is a vital entryway into the south end of Ocean City along the Roosevelt Boulevard-34th Street corridor. It is the second-busiest gateway into Ocean City, behind the state-owned Route 52 Causeway-Ninth Street Bridge in the center of town.
During the rehabilitation project, construction crews refurbished or replaced the bridge’s old spans to smooth out the formerly pockmarked and pitted concrete deck. Now, motorists drive across a much smoother and safer surface.
“It wasn’t good for your car. It was a bumpy ride. Not only was it a bumpy ride, it wasn’t safe,” Barr said of the bridge’s old surface.
As the construction work begins to wrap up, Barr praised Foster for delivering the bridge project on schedule and under budget.
“He’s done a good job in making sure that he hit his deadline,” Barr said. “I’m sure the residents will appreciate it. I certainly appreciate it.”
Now that the bridge project is nearly done, Barr wants Foster and the county to next give the 34th Street entranceway into Ocean City a facelift. Barr has been lobbying to have the county-owned corridor beautified with new landscaping and other improvements.
“I do believe everybody is open to doing something there,” Barr said.
The bridge’s two-year overhaul, meanwhile, was done in stages largely during the winter months of 2017 and 2018 to avoid traffic disruptions during the peak summer tourism season.
Motorists crossing over the bridge have had to navigate through a gauntlet of concrete barriers, narrow lanes, traffic lights and flashing road signs that bluntly warn them, “Be prepared to stop.”
Construction was choreographed to keep the span open during the work, although there have been some overnight closings. Traffic gets stacked up as cars are squeezed through alternating, single lanes of traffic and while waiting for the stop lights to turn green.
Foster said the red lights cause wait times of between four and five minutes. He acknowledged that during rush hour, the delays are frustrating to motorists.
However, the patience-testing commutes over the bridge will be a thing of the past, once the traffic lights are removed and the construction is completed.
“The light is starting to shine at the end of the tunnel,” Foster said.