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It is the last week of June. The sounds of lawn mowers and people blaring loud music from their car stereos are everywhere. The sharp smell of suntan lotion hangs in the salt air, and on weekends now the highways are crowded with vehicles rushing to or from the beach. Summer has arrived to the Jersey Shore – it's time for sun, surf, and summer fun.
No doubt one important roadway that many people travel on to enjoy the Jersey Shore is Highway 36. A person can easily follow Highway 36 from exit 117 on the Garden State Parkway and savor the sand and surf of the Atlantic Ocean at Sandy Hook, Sea Bright, or many other coastal communities along the northern Jersey Shore. Needless to say, an important link between people seeking the sand and sea and actually stepping out of their vehicles to take pleasure from the seashore is crossing over the Shrewsbury River on the legendary and picturesque Highlands-Sea Bright drawbridge.
(The legendary Highlands-Sea Bright Bridge as it now appears on a typical summer day. The picture was taken on a Sunday afternoon in August 2006)
Since 1932, this celebrated movable bridge has served local residents and tourists well. It is part of the small town charm and unique character of Highlands, Sea Bright, and our northern Jersey Shore region. It is one reason that the Northern Monmouth Chamber of Commerce has declared on their website, “The Highlands-Sea Bright Bridge is the gateway to Sandy Hook and beach towns south along Route 36.” The bridge is a vital and distinctive doorway for people around the world to admire the approximately 127 miles of beautiful Atlantic Ocean beaches in New Jersey. For many folks, their seaside vacation begins in the Bayshore region and journeys southward along the shore via the Highlands-Sea Bright Bridge.
Sure, the bridge occasionally breaks down and parts of it are eroding away, but is there really a need or obligation to destroy this only one of its kind bridge that has been such an important part of the history, character, and personality of the region? To me, it somehow feels good to walk or drive down the same streets or roads that my father and mother, or grandfather and grandmother, or great-grandfather and great-grandmother did, especially if there something about the place that still looks the same as it did back then. It is kind of nice to preserve old things to rediscover our origins and maintain the attractiveness of our costal communities.
(The Highlands-Sea Bright Bridge as it might appear in the future - steeper, higher, and with less local character. It would come into view like any standard bridge found along the NJ Turnpike)
Now, of course, there are people, mainly from the NJ State Department of Transportation way out in Trenton, who are declaring that we must destroy the old and ornery drawbridge to build a modern and industrious high-rise fixed bridge.
(Before the open public meeting, a double rainbow appeared over the school, perhaps an optimistic sign from above)
On the evening of Thursday, June 21, more than 400 residents from Highlands, Sea Bright, Atlantic Highlands, Middletown Township, Red Bank, Holmdel, and other nearby communities attended a public meeting at Henry Hudson Regional School to learn more about the proposed construction of a new bridge over the Shrewsbury River. A similar meeting took place earlier in the day in Sea Bright. The meeting was held by the state Department of Transportation. In attendance were elected officials from both Highlands and Sea Bright, an official from State Assemblyperson Kean’s office, State Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri, Richard Wells, Director of Sandy Hook, and Judith Stanley Coleman, President of both the Monmouth County Historical Association and the Monmouth County Conservation Foundation.
(A packed room of people with most expressing their ideas and comments with a hope to end the annihilation of the current bridge and to preserve local history and character)
While the goal of the meeting by state officials was for the public to ask questions of Commissioner Kolluri and his engineers about plans to replace the 75 year-old, 35-foot-high drawbridge with a 65-foot-high fixed bridge, many in attendance disregard the question and answer portion with loud calls and pleas to, save, repair or duplicate the existing bridge. As one person stated, “I don’t think of it as just a bridge, I think of it as a neighbor.” Another person asked loudly if the state would consider destroying the Brooklyn Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge just because it was aged. One person asserted that the state let the bridge go into disrepair so that they would have to tear it down, and still another person declared that the DOT was trying to make every roadway look like the NJ Turnpike. Many people declared their appreciation or admiration for the bridge over and over again.
There was certainly some of that old-time Yankee spirit being revived in Highlands that night. The public made clearly known that they are weary of not being asked what it wants or given a choice, but rather forced to swallow what it is given to them by strangers or outsiders.
(A map provided by NJDOT at the meeting that illustrates the steepness, grade, and magnitude of the proposed new bridge over the Shrewsbury River)
So, what exactly is threatening the communities and lifestyle of this region? Construction of the 1,582-foot-long replacement fixed bridge, which would involve constructing the new bridge over the present-day 1,240-foot-long span, and would sit 73 feet above the water level of the Shrewsbury River, or approximately 30 feet higher than the existing span. The total cost of building a new bridge is $124 million, which would be paid by state taxpayers. The new bridge is expected to be similar in form and function to the bridge over the Raritan River between South Amboy and Perth Amboy.
Keep in mind that the landscape we create or allow to be created around us will have a large influence on our sense of community, quality of life, and coastal heritage for decades to come. What we build today, will last well into the future, so why not put together something that has a good personality and complements a region, or better yet, preserve what we already have.
Some fundamental and basic questions to ask about this project is how will this new steep bridge handle the winter season with increased black ice or snow? Will this new bridge facilitate additional or expanded roadways and development within the environmentally sensitive area of Sandy Hook or within the small coastal community of Sea Bright? How will this new bridge deal with stormwater management or the natural hydrologic functions of the area? What kind of impact will the new bridge have on the well-known Gertrude Ederle Park located at the existing bridge in Highlands? For those who do not know, Ederle spent all of her summers in Highlands and she swam from Sandy Hook to the Highlands Bridge while training for her famous English Channel swim in 1926. She became the first woman to swim the English Channel, and also the first to be given a ticker-tape parade up Broadway. It would be horrible if this beautiful park in honor of such a great women was destroyed to make way for a new bridge that few people want.
So, while all good things come to an end, the fight goes on to save the Highlands-Sea Bright Bridge from being destroyed and losing an important part of the spirit of the region. A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Sea Bright and Highlands to NJDOT to stop the progress of this proposed plan. We also need to push our local, state, and federal government elected officials to do all they can to bring to an end this unwise plan. In addition, a grass-roots group has been formed to also fight for this landmark. If you would like to get involved, please check out their website:
Let’s face it, the scope and quantity of new development going on in New Jersey and along the Jersey Shore is a crime. – pure, premeditated murder. We now have an opportunity to preserve a little bit of our coastal heritage for future generations to enjoy. Just like an old friend, the Highlands-Sea Bright Bridge is full of charm and appeal, and is unique among other coastal bridges along the Jersey Shore. Can we preserve or maintain our own history in an otherwise built up, domesticated, and urbanized landscape?