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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

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Ex-manager Hits County Purchase Of Beesley Bridge

By Al Campbell

COURT HOUSE — The former general manager of Cape May County Bridge Commission, Wister “Barney” Dougherty, believes Freeholder Gerald Thornton was correct in opposing the county’s purchase of the Beesley’s Point Bridge for $1.
Dougherty thinks the bridge buy, to be done by year’s end, is “a disgrace…and asinine.”
“I don’t object to the Beesley’s Point Bridge opening, but the Cape May County Bridge Commissioner has no business to venture out as it did,” Dougherty told the Herald Dec. 17.
He responded to a front-page story about the county freeholders’ 4-1 vote Dec. 9 to buy the closed, 4,829-foot bridge that links Cape May and Atlantic counties on state-owned Route 9, which is part of a federal road system. Beesley’s Point Bridge Co.
shareholders agreed to repay $900,000 that the state Department of Transportation advanced to repair the bridge.
County Engineer Dale Foster estimated the bridge would cost about $20 million to repair. The state Department of Transportation would bear 60 percent of the cost with the county standing behind the remainder.
The Cape May County Bridge Commission, which operates five toll bridges linking barrier islands from Ocean City to Lower Township, would undertake operations and charge a toll of $1.50, comparable to what the Garden State Parkway bridges will charge in 2012, when the bridge is expected to reopen to traffic.
Dougherty, like Thornton, does not oppose reopening. However, he believes the state should bear the financial burden, not county taxpayers.
“Ninety five percent of the county taxpayers will never use that bridge. It’s been closed four and a half years,” said Dougherty.
Dougherty admits he was “persona non grata,” with freeholders after he said he was told “Don’t worry about it, forget about it,” regarding the Ocean City-Longport Bridge.
The outdated bridge was a potential liability, and Dougherty said, “I would be the one responsible” if something had happened there.
So, he sought out U.S. Rep. Williams Hughes, an Ocean City resident, who helped secure federal funding for the bridge.
After that, Dougherty’s fate at the commission was sealed, he said.
“I soured the freeholders,” Dougherty said.
“This is not a vendetta. All the years I scrimped and saved to have the commission stay in operation, I think it’s a disgrace,” said Dougherty.
“They made a mistake once with the Avalon (Boulevard) Bridge,” he said.
To build that span, “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,” accord to the commission’s Web site.
Dougherty said after that bridge was built there was “no way the commission could be profitable.”
In Dougherty’s estimation, Middle Thorofare Bridge, the commission’s first bridge opened in 1940. It links Five Mile Beach and Lower Township at Two Mile Beach, and should be first on the commission and county’s list to replace, he said.
The commission was created in 1934 by county freeholders.
Its “express purpose” was to “have 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,” the commission’s Web site states.
“More people should know the downfalls of that (Beesley’s Point) bridge,” Dougherty said.
“It is not the county’s responsibility, and especially the Cape May County Bridge Commission, which is trying to keep its head above water. It’s one hell of a mess,” Dougherty said.
“I’ve read the county is not getting the ratables, it’s not getting the revenues. It has a hiring freeze and there are cuts in municipal aid. We are not flush with money in Cape May County,” he said.
“Why are they saddling us with something that is a state responsibility?” Dougherty asked.
At the Dec. 9 meeting, county Administrator Stephen O’Connor, who is also executive director of the Cape May County Bridge Commission, projected the $1.50 toll to be collected one-way was estimated to generate $1.3 million.
With the state Department of Transportation paying 60 percent of the cost of repairs, and tolls to offset some of the expenses, and if federal aid were secured as part of a public works stimulus package, O’Connor said, “The operation comes out flat. The county doesn’t contribute anything.”
Parts of this story were first published at capemaycountyherald.com
Contact Campbell at (609) 886-8600 ext 28 or at: acampbell@cmcherald.com

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