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Boardwalk Blues

State legislators toured under Wildwood’s boardwalk Sept. 17

By Bill Barlow

WILDWOOD – Masonry is Ernie Troiano’s family business, so he knows what he’s looking at when he points out crumbling concrete under his city’s boardwalk.
The longtime Wildwood mayor pulled at a piece where the rebar showed, bringing down a shower of dust and concrete. The steel reinforcement adds strength to concrete structures, but over time the steel expands in the sea air, eventually cracking the surrounding material. 
“It doesn’t take an ironworker or a cement guy to see when this stuff’s cracking and exposed that we’re in a bad spot,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney. “If you look up top, it looks perfectly normal.”
Sweeney stood beside Troiano Sept. 17, under a section of the boardwalk in the worst shape, to push a plan to use state funding to reconstruct the popular tourist attraction in Wildwood and throughout the state.
Sen. Robert Andrzejczak (D-1st) has introduced legislation to use money from the state Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) to put $40 million into boardwalk repairs over 10 years, starting in Wildwood. Assembly members Bruce Land and Matt Milam (also D-1st) have put forward matching bills.
Gov. Phil Murphy, a fellow Democrat, shot down a previous attempt to fund the repairs Aug. 23, vetoing a bill that would have put $56 million into the work over 14 years, angering South Jersey Democrats. Murphy called the appropriation unconstitutional, at the same time killing another $4 million set to go to Wildwood boardwalk repairs this year.
Andrzejczak criticized the veto at the time. News media have linked the veto to an ongoing and remarkably public fight between Sweeney and Murphy over George Norcross, a high-profile South Jersey businessman and Democratic leader.
Sweeney said the proposal was constitutional, and said as governor, Murphy would have to make up the shortfall if the tourism tax money stopped flowing from South Jersey’s beach towns.
He joined the First District legislators and representatives of county and municipal government, both Republicans and Democrats, along with reporters from around the state, to tour the understructure of the boardwalk near the Wildwoods Convention Center.
Even to the untrained eye, the problems were apparent. Wooden supports held up concrete sections, while gaps and cracks could be seen in several areas.
“Look at all the cribbing. You’re seeing they’re doing everything they can to keep it open,” Sweeney told reporters. “At some point, they’re going to have to shut portions completely down.”
Troiano said the boardwalk was strong enough to hold runners, walkers and bike riders, but the section above was closed to vehicles about two weeks before, starting at Burk Avenue. He estimated the needed repairs could cost more than $60 million.
Mayor Patrick Rosenello, of neighboring North Wildwood, said his town’s section would cost more than $10 million to repair, putting the total project at over $75 million.
Much of the existing boardwalk was built in the 1930s. 
While Tuesday’s event focused on the Wildwoods, Andrzejczak plans for funding to be available to towns throughout the coast.
In Wildwood and other areas, the boardwalk is legally a street. The TTF is generated by a tax on gasoline sales. The proposal would include boardwalks and promenades in the state formula for the local aid infrastructure fund under the TTF.
“You’re looking at billions of dollars a year in the TTF pot. We’re just asking for a little bit of that for the boardwalks and promenades,” Andrzejczak said.
Sweeney said Murphy called the proposal “pork” during a budget meeting.
“This isn’t pork. This is an investment in the economy of the state of New Jersey that has to be made,” he said. “This isn’t partisan. You see Democrats, you see Republicans. We stand together for one reason: This has to be addressed.”
Lawmakers said 10 million people visited Cape May County this year, where 43% of the jobs are directly linked to tourism. He stated that the county sent $555 million to Trenton in 2018, second only to Atlantic County.
Troiano pointed out that in Wildwood, utilities including gas, electric, water, and sewer run under the boardwalk, which must also support fire vehicles and ambulances.
“Foot traffic is not going to drop the boardwalk. A 20-ton truck? It’s going to drop it like a bad habit,” Troiano said.
The officials returned to the top of the boardwalk, where multiple boards seemed loose and worn, but there was no obvious reason to be concerned. A small number of post-Labor Day walkers and bikers passed as the officials continued to make their case.
Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton linked the proposal to tourism, a point made by other speakers.
“The Wildwood boardwalk is a historic attraction that serves as the backbone of the community and the region. It is a prime attraction that supports economic activity and the quality of life for residents and visitors,” Andrzejczak said in a prepared statement on the proposal.
To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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