Commission members and employees said the finding was not surprising. "All indications since the project was first announced indicate overwhelming support," said DeMarco.
But Burlington City Mayor Herman Costello questioned the conclusion. "This ballot is an insult," he said. The card reads, "Yes! build the bridge now," and there is no place on the card to mark opposition, he said.
Stears said the hundreds of cards returned without comments were assumed to show support for the new bridge.
"It's like a (pre-Gorbachev) Russian election," complained Costello. ''Just one candidate."
Commission member John Heimer said bridge opponents could still have used the cards to express their sentiments. "If they wanted to say 'no,' they had the chance to do it in the comments section," he said.
DeMarco said 112 of the respondents did write comments against the bridge, some of them nasty.
The card asked respondents to write their names and addresses if they wanted additional information. Stears said many opponents had not signed their names, making their cards "less valuable" in gauging opposition.
"They couldn't go to a bank and get them to accept this as a feasibility study," said Costello. "They're resorting to subterfuge and absolute fraud. I'm surprised that a firm that's relying on their reputation would do this. That guy Stears should be ashamed of himself."
Stears said he saw no conflict in both collecting data and taking a strong pro-new-bridge position in the same brochure.
One area industrial-park official said several companies opposed the new bridge because its design would reduce access to existing plants. Burlington City leaders and Bridge Commission staff differ on the number of houses and businesses that would have to be eliminated to make way for the new bridge.
Costello denounced the spending of commission funds on the public-relations campaign. "They're squandering toll-payers' money," he said.
Stears said the brochures cost the Tierney Group, the Philadelphia public- relations firm that hired him, about $30,000, including $13,000 for reprints to correct a printing error. Because of the error, initial distribution was delayed from Aug. 2 to Aug. 9.
Stears said Burlington City was orchestrating its own public-relations campaign. "The mayor has beaten the drum almost (alone) in opposition to the bridge," he said. "We believe (residents) haven't got full information."
Costello said the commission's first brochure had provided false impressions. He noted that cars in a bridge traffic-jam photo appeared to bear New York license plates, and that accompanying text did not justify some of the predictions: a possible toll increase to $2.50 if the bridge were not replaced, and a guaranteed stable bridge toll for 30 years if the new bridge were built.
Stears said continued use of the old bridge was demanding higher maintenance costs. "It's already falling apart," he said. The commission's brochure says traffic is more than 30 times the 59-year-old bridge's design capacity.
During the Aug. 28 meeting, commission members approved a welding maintenance contract with WT Welding of Mount Laurel for $436,000 - which
commission engineer Endel Kart said represented a $130,000 decrease over the previous year's maintenance welding contract with the same company.
"They can't justify the new bridge," said Costello. "They know it. They haven't even applied for permits yet. The City of Burlington has drawn an imaginary line and dared (the commission) to step over it. . . .
"We're watching them."