As Ocean City bridge closes, talk of both calm and chaos Some island dwellers note the sudden lack of traffic; others see headaches for commuters forced miles out of their way.

Posted: June 24, 2001

OCEAN CITY — Bill Lotz remembered the times he couldn't walk his dog around the neighborhood without seeing a crush of summer traffic on this island dubbed locally "America's Greatest Family Resort."

But with last weekend's permanent closing of the crumbling and sinking 73-year-old Ocean City-Longport Bridge, Lotz strolled streets yesterday that, at times, seemed more crowded with pedestrians and bikes than cars.

"It makes the end of the island a lot quieter," said Lotz, 55, a native of Ocean City. "You couldn't walk around this area without someone stopping you asking how to get to Atlantic City."

After years of problems and repeated closures, the demise of the Ocean City-Longport Bridge finally came when Cape May officials began construction of its $50 million big brother 50 feet to the east of the old span.

The idea was to keep the old bridge, which stretches over the Great Egg Harbor Bay, open while the other was under construction. That plan failed when the installation of pilings for the new bridge, scheduled to open on Memorial Day weekend next year, caused the old bridge to sink as much as eight inches - four in one day.

Now, what is bliss for some on one side of the island has become a nightmare of sorts for others, just in time for the busiest months of the year.

Nearly two million vehicles crossed the old bridge every year. That traffic will now be sent to the Ninth Street drawbridge - also known as the U.S. 52 Causeway - taking some people 40 minutes out of their way.

People who live or vacation here expect headaches galore, particularly for those people trying to get off the island to get to work or just to make a trip to Atlantic City.

"I think it's going to be a lot of problems because it will create [heavy] traffic at the Ninth Street Bridge," said Vicki Novak, 47, of Philadelphia, who spends summer weekends on the island with her husband Ed, 47.

Yesterday, the Novaks rode their bikes with two other couples from out of town, taking in the spectacular view of the harbor dotted with sailboats and jet skis.

Ed Novak said he never realized the bridge had any problems.

"Every time I've come down here and gone across the bridge, I've always been allowed to go across," he said.

Cape May officials had planned for more than a decade to close the bridge. It was closed June 5 after it sank four inches. Two weeks later, officials closed it for good. A close look at shows a steep decline just beyond the drawbridge apparatus.

The future of the aging drawbridge is already set; about 500 feet of it on the Atlantic County side will become a fishing pier.

The rest will be taken out to sea and used in artificial fishing reefs.

The new bridge is to be much higher - 65 feet - so that larger vessels can pass under and car traffic can flow freely.

Stephen O'Connor, executive director of the Cape May County Bridge Commission, said that some people were bound to feel inconvenienced by the bridge closure, but that "no one would respect anyone that would open up an unsafe bridge."

"I think the feedback we've gotten from the residents comes back that obviously people are concerned about the traffic on the other routes," O'Connor said. "But it's unanimous that for public safety, it's a perfect decision."

Even though the bridge is closed, Pat Coleman still works the control booth on the Ocean City side.

Coleman, 54, of Ocean City, occasionally has to turn away people who don't know about the situation, but her day now is spent opening and closing the drawbridge to let water traffic through.

"There are a lot of people who don't want to see this bridge go away," she said. "It's quicker than Ninth Street when you're at this end of town."

She worries about traffic for the people who work in places like Atlantic City, and she wonders about her job."There are a lot of questions, but no one has the answers right now," she said.

Leonard N. Fleming's e-mail address is lfleming@phillynews.com.

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