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By Matt Lynch
The Two River Times
HIGHLANDS - Appearing at a crowded and contentious public meeting last Thursday, state Department of Transportation officials faced near universal derision for their decision to move towards replacing the 75-year old Route 36 Highlands drawbridge with a significantly larger, if more efficient, fixed-span structure.
Unbowed, state DOT Commissioner Kris Kolluri said the estimated $124 million project - for which the department secured permits and funding - is at this point moving forward as designed. With $14 million spent in design fees, the state DOT does not appear willing to reopen the issue.
"For the moment our plan is to go forward with the plan," Kolluri said in response to a request from Mayor Richard O'Neil to have the state DOT revisit the design.
Kolluri requested the meeting as a public forum to share the thinking behind his department's decision to push forward with a 65 foot tall, $124 million fixed span bridge compared to repairing or attempting to roughly reapproximate the locally beloved but deteriorated drawbridge. Kolluri said that the Highlands Bridge is rated as the "worst movable bridge in the state."
The current bridge sits some 35 feet above the Shrewsbury River at high tide. Earlier in the day, Kolluri gave a presentation in the borough on the other side of the bridge - Sea Bright.
Over the long term, building a taller and wider fixed-span bridge is the most cost-efficient and safest of the three alternatives, the commissioner argued. Repairing the current bridge - which the state DOT said would cost between $86 and $96 million while providing a minimum expected lifespan of 20 years compared to 75 years for the proposed bridge along with a complete bridge closure for a minimum of 16 months - is according to Kolluri "not an option."
A new drawbridge similar to the existing bridge would have construction costs of $150 million, according to Kolluri. This does not include the seven full-time employees that the commissioner said would be needed to operate the bridge. This would also require the state to acquire significantly more land than the 2.4 acres of borough-owned property that it must acquire under the current proposal.
Critics, and there were many within the crowd of perhaps 300 inside Henry Hudson Regional School on June 21, counter that the state DOT was locked on a fixed-span structure from the start. Furthermore they say that the proposed bridge would cause irreparable harm to the unique feel of the area including the sight lines to the Twin Lights, a national historic landmark.
"I don't know if it could be said any more loudly," Stuart J. Lieberman, a lawyer representing Citizens for Rational Coastal Development, a Highlands-based citizen's group opposing the project said in comments directed to state DOT Commissioner Kris Kolluri. "They don't want what you are selling."
The governing body in both Highlands and neighboring Sea Bright passed identical resolutions late last year opposing construction of a fixed-span structure. As Kolluri pointed out multiple times during Thursday's meeting, both governing bodys had previously, repeatedly, passed resolutions supporting the state DOT's proposal.
O'Neil said that the state DOT failed to present options to the council. "It was always a fixed bridge," he said. Councilmen John Urbanski, William Caizza and Frank Nolan along with long-time borough clerk, Nina Light Flannery backed up the mayor's assertion.
Highlands resident Fran Benson described the state DOT's perspective as "‘This is what we are doing. We'd like your input but it doesn't really matter.'"
Kolluri, who has held his position for approximately the past 18 months, assured the governing body and audience that this decision "has not been made in a vacuum."
It has not been made suddenly either.
According to an informational sheet provided by the state DOT this project "has been under study since 1988." Kolluri said that a decision was made in 2002 to move forward with the fixed span structure. At that point the state began only "necessary maintenance" under the argument that the bridge would eventually be displaced.
According to figures presented last Thursday, the state DOT has spent roughly $10 million on maintenance since 1991 and an average of $1 million over the past 2.5 years. Operating the bridge currently costs $400,000 annually.
The state DOT has decided to make their inspection reports and various other findings and applications available to the governing body of both Sea Bright and Highlands. The public may review the documents as well at Highlands Borough Hall on Bay Avenue.
Regardless of the reasons behind the current state of the bridge, there appears to be consensus that at a minimum major structural repair work must take place.
Kolluri would like to have the council's blessings, but he seemed to indicate that the project would move forward regardless.
"With the consent of this council, eventually, we will go out to bid on this project." Kolluri said.