By John Burton
RED BANK – Safety concerns and kudos were heard as Monmouth County officials listened to area residents comment about the plan to construct a new bridge across the Swimming River on West Front Street.
County officials heard differing opinions last Wednesday, April 18, from the few area residents attending a public input session.
As Monmouth County Engineer Joseph Ettore gave an overview of the project, a woman from Hubbard Avenue in Middletown, who asked not to be identified, shook her head and offered a small smile. “There’s no traffic remedy or safety,” she said.
Hubbard Avenue is just off West Front Street, in close proximity to the bridge, in Middletown’s River Plaza section.
The woman said she sees traffic snarls daily and is worried about the safety concerns they can engender. She contends they are not being addressed. “It’s a nice looking bridge but it’s not going to fix any of the [traffic] bottlenecks,” she said.
The present bridge dates from 1921 and is in need of replacement due to age and condition. Plans call for a new $15 million bridge to be built just north of the existing span. Construction is slated to begin during the summer of 2013 and last about two years.
Tom Bunge, who also lives in the River Plaza section, offered a differing view. “I think they did a nice job,” he said. “You want it to be a nice gateway that the town can be proud of.
“I walk and ride my bike all the time,” as do his children and other kids in the area, Bunge continued. “My concern was mostly the pedestrians walking and their safety.”
He stressed that he believes those concerns have been addressed in the most recent design.
The bridge, County Bridge S-17, is approximately 340 feet long, spanning the river and connecting Red Bank to Middletown. Serious work on the bridge has been under consideration since 1992, Ettore said. In 2004, county officials authorized some emergency work to ensure the bridge’s safety. A temporary deck replacement was installed when the original deck had deteriorated significantly. “Basically,” Ettore said, “we’ve been on borrowed time since 1992.”
The project will be paid in full through federal funding and is expected to cost upwards of $15 million – about $12 million in hard construction costs, and the remainder in “soft” expenses, such as planning design, and the like, Ettore said.
The April 18 public hearing and the one held on April 25 in Middletown were required by federal officials to qualify for the funding.
Approximately 17,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily.
The present bridge will be open during most of the construction period. Eventually, traffic will be detoured during a three-to-four month period for the demantling of the present span. The new bridge would not yet be ready to open, Ettore said.
Construction is expected to take about 24 months, commencing in earnest during the summer 2013, he said.
Initially, Red Bank had expressed reservations about the proposal, asking for additional aesthetics and more pedestrian access, which county planners accommodated.
The proposed project includes sidewalks on both sides; broader shoulders; decorative lighting, and bicycle access.
The new bridge will look something like the Coopers Bridge on state Highway 35, which underwent a complete overhaul about a dozen years ago.
When Ettore appeared before the borough council last month, Mayor Pasquale Menna offered his appreciation to county officials for recognizing the borough’s issues and addressing them.
Red Bank Borough Council and Middletown Township Committee, along with the county’s Board of Chosen Freeholders, have adopted resolutions in support of the project, Ettore said.
In response to the Middletown woman’s assessment, Ettore said, the new bridge “is going to give us traffic relief.” Even as it continues to be a two-lane structure, the proposed wider shoulders will allow greater traffic flow toward the bridge, Ettore said.
The Middletown woman wasn’t swayed. “I just think it’s a damn shame,” that the end result won’t alleviate the area’s problem. “Can you image what they could do with $15 million?” she asked.
“The main intent of the project is to build a safe structure,” Ettore said.
“I’m pleased with the design,” Tom Bunge said afterwards. “I think they listened to the community.”