The Cape May County Bridge Commission was created by the Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Cape May pursuant to N.J.S.A. 27 19-26. The Commission’s first meeting was held in February 1934 with the express purpose of having the means to apply for funds from the Federal Government to construct publicly owned coastal highway toll bridges and highway approaches. The intent of the Commission was to finance, construct, maintain and operate toll bridges within the County of Cape May. Having a quasi-public body meant that bridges could be constructed without cost to the County. Through a grant from the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works (New Deal) in the amount of $744,000 and a loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in the amount of $910,000, the Commission created a package total of 1.6 million dollars to construct the coastal highway bridges. These bridges would connect the barrier islands along the southern New Jersey coastline.
In June of 1940 the Commission opened single leaf bascule span bridges and their approach roadways on the Ocean Highway between Cape May and Wildwood Crest known as the “Middle Thorofare” Bridge and smaller T-beam bridges over Upper Thorofare and Mill Creek. Bascule span bridges were also constructed between North Wildwood and Stone Harbor known as “Grassy Sound” Bridge and included the Great Channel Bridge to complete the highway over the waterways to Stone Harbor. Another bascule span bridge was built between Avalon and Sea Isle City known as “Townsends Inlet” Bridge. In 1946 the Commission constructed a new bascule span bridge in Strathmere known as “Corsons Inlet” Bridge under a bond issue totaling 3.4 million dollars. Also, in 1946 the Commission purchased the “Ocean City Longport Bridge” (constructed 1927) for $720,000 to complete the 40 miles of coastal highways. In 1947-1950 the Commission undertook the first major rehabilitation program. The Ocean City Longport Bridge was in disrepair because of lack of funds from the previous owner. The repairs consisted of deck replacement, hand rails and side walk replacements, new marine cables, toll booth replacement and various other repairs. By 1993, the Ocean City Longport Bridge’s state of deterioration was a safety concern for the public and became the basis for the replacement bridge. The new structure was constructed and opened to the public on July 19, 2002.
The Commission issued revenue bonds in August 1965 to help construct a replacement bridge between Avalon and the mainland, which is owned by the County of Cape May. The 1946 bond issue was retired at the time in the amount of $656,000. In January 1991 revenue bonds were issued in the amount of $4,615,000 and were used for bridge construction projects. The next bonds were issued in 1998 in the amount of $7,105,000, which retired the 1991 issue at $2,475,000 and were used for structural repairs, improvements to Corsons Inlet, recoating Middle Thorofare Bridge, Grassy Sound Bridge and Townsend’s Inlet Bridge, steel repairs, fender repairs and miscellaneous repairs to all bridges. The latest bonds were issued by the Commission in November 2005 in the amount of $11,865,000. Of that total, $10,000,000 has been dedicated to a construction fund for structural repairs and improvements to Corson’s Inlet bridge, rehabilitation and steelwork at Townsend’s Inlet bridge, toll house replacement and steel repairs/miscellaneous improvements to all bridges.
The first of the Commission’s bridges to open was Middle Thorofare located between Cape May and Wildwood Crest in Cold Spring. The bridge location is part of the Intercoastal Waterway and intersects Cape May Harbor and a jetty, which is an outlet to the Atlantic Ocean. The bridge is also located directly across from the U.S. Coast Guard Station-Cape May. Located on the north side of the bridge is one of the busiest fishing docks on the east coast.
The second bridge to open was the Grassy Sound Bridge located between North Wildwood and Stone Harbor. This bridge is also part of the Intercoastal Waterway system. The waterway continues into a channel, which becomes part of the Atlantic Ocean a short distance away. There is a marina located at the foot of the bridge. Fishermen use the area for pleasure fishing and birders enjoy seeking out many types of bird species along the marshes.
The third bridge to open is the Townsends Inlet Bridge located between Avalon and Sea Isle City. This is an entry way to the Intercoastal Waterway from the Atlantic Ocean. This Inlet serves both commercial marine traffic as well as pleasure craft. It is also a favorite spot for local fishermen with jetties and back bay available.
The last bridge to be constructed by the Commission is Corsons Inlet Bridge. The bridge is located in Strathmere and at the south end of Ocean City. An inlet, a short distance from the bridge, feeds from the Atlantic Ocean, but is currently impassable to marine vessels. The back bays are a favorite fishing area.
Ocean City Longport Bridge purchased by the Commission in 1946 was replaced with a newly constructed bridge, which opened in 2002. It includes the bridge, toll plaza with three lanes, generator shed and service building. It is located at the northern end of Ocean City in an area known as The Gardens. The roadway extends toward Longport to the north and Somers Point to the west. At the northern end of the toll bridge, the original structure was dismantled and removed except for about 900 feet, which was used as a base for a fishing pier complete with parking area and gazebo. This fishing pier is now open to the public for all seasons of fishing. The total cost of this project was $50,000,000. Most of the funds were Federal transportation line item funds and a Commission payment of $2.8 million to the State of New Jersey, who administrated the contracts for construction of the bridge and toll plaza.
Toll revenue collected at each bridge location began as a $.25 toll for class one vehicles (includes passenger cars, pickup trucks and vans). There have been three toll rate hikes over the years. The first toll rate increase was in 1978, when the complete toll structure was revised. This was done because revenue was not increasing enough to cover construction and maintenance costs. The rate went from $.25 to $.30. In 1984 it was determined that there was again a need to cover construction and maintenance costs with existing toll revenue not meeting the needs. The rate went from $.30 to $.40. The last time rates were increased was in 1988 when again the costs of construction and maintenance repairs were rising. This toll rate increase went from $.40 to $.50. There were thirteen categories within four classes of tolls, depending on the number of axles. They ranged from $.50 to $5.50 for a bridge with two-way tolls and from $1.00 to $11.00 for a bridge with one-way tolls. Ocean City Longport bridge was the first bridge to collect toll in one direction. That began in July 19, 2002 with a charge of one dollar in a south bound direction only. North bound vehicles went free of a toll charge. In May of 2003, the Middle Thorofare bridge changed to a one way toll collection at one dollar. In May of 2005, the Commission changed the remaining bridges to collection of tolls in one direction at a charge of one dollar. The remaining classes begin at $1.00 and end with Class IV with trailers at $11.00. The direction for collecting tolls varies with each bridge, but the opposite lane of each plaza remains toll free.