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January 2, 2008

$124M contract awarded for new Highlands bridge

BY MELISSA KARSH
Star-Ledger Staff

Advocates seek injunction to stop demolition

Just one day after opponents of the Highlands bridge demolition filed an injunction to stop the bidding process, a contract was awarded to seal its replacement.

The state Department of Transportation (DOT) awarded the contract to replace the 75-year-old drawbridge that joins the boroughs of Highlands and Sea Bright to lowest bidder J.H. Reid General Contractor of South Plainfield Dec. 21 for $124,559,819.43.

"DOT is pleased that this project is moving forward, and we look forward to providing a safe, new bridge," said DOT spokeswoman Erin Phalon this week.

She said the start date of the construction depends on the weather and the contractor's schedule, but that it is possible construction could begin as early as January.

Although the DOT awarded the contract for the bridge demolition on Dec. 20, lawyers representing the borough of Sea Bright and the local grassroots group Citizens for Rational Coastal Development (CRCD) filed an injunction to stop the bidding process on the bridge contract.

The 38-page injunction follows a Sept. 21 suit filed by the CRCD in U.S. District Court, naming the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, DOT and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as defendants.

The complaint asked the court to invalidate the award of federal funds for the DOT project, which would demolish the existing drawbridge and build a replacement, fixed-span bridge. The plaintiffs are also seeking a public hearing and an environmental impact study of the project.

The borough councils in Sea Bright and Highlands also passed resolutions last January opposing the DOT's controversial plan for the demolition of the drawbridge and its replacement with a 30-foot higher, fixed bridge.

The DOT started accepting bids in November after receiving all necessary local and environmental approvals to move forward on the project, according to Phalon.

Other bidders include George Harms Construction Co. Inc. of Farmingdale with the second lowest bid of $138,975,928.52; Perini Corp. of Framingham, Mass., with the third lowest bid of $147,888,745.35; and Granite-Agate of Watsonville, Calif., with the fourth lowest bid of $163,801,872.53.

"We're asking the court to stop the state DOT from issuing any awards to any of these contractors concerning the bridge proposal," said CRCD attorney Stuart Lieberman, of Lieberman & Blecher. "We don't want bids to be issued with regards to this bridge really until a lot of questions are answered."

Lieberman said if the contract had already being awarded, which Phalon had confirmed that it had been, then it would change the wording of the request from one of not awarding to one of freezing the award.

"We believe it's very important that nobody be allowed to go forward with a contract for this bridge until some important questions are answered," said Lieberman. He added that it was no secret that the DOT was going to award a bid shortly and that it was known that an injunction was to be filed.

According to Lieberman, some of the questions that have yet to be answered by the DOT include: Does the bridge really need to be replaced? And, if it does, why can't it be replaced with a bridge that is similar?

"The answer to these questions become even more paramount when you consider the historic resource value of the existing bridge and the multitude of environmental and historic-related problems caused by the current proposal," said Lieberman.

He added, "We don't say that the bridge shouldn't be replaced, what we say is that they should provide proof that the bridge has to be replaced."

According to a DOT presentation in June, the bridge, which was built in 1932, cannot efficiently carry out the Coast Guard mandate on bridge opening, broke down 14 times in 2006, annual drawbridge operation costs $400,000, emergency maintenance for the bridge has progressively increased and has exceeded $1 million annually since 2005.

"This bridge is in urgent need of replacement," said Phalon.

According to the presentation, the new design will minimize the environmental impact, shorten the construction duration, avoid environmentally sensitive areas. It would also keep the structure shallow and reduce the number of piers in the river to open the view shed and minimize the existing bridge lighting.

Opponents of the bridge replacement say it will be detrimental to the historic nature of the area and interfere with the views of and from the Twin Lights, a national historic landmark.

According to the CRCD Web site, "Our group opposes replacing our historically safe bridge that blends harmoniously with the shore view shed with an excessively high, undistinguished monstrosity that will block the existing view from both sides, decrease property values in the area, and probably have dangerous icing conditions during the winter season.

"Our group believes this 'bridge improvement' to be a preliminary step in a regional plan that will ultimately widen roads, substantially increase traffic flow, eventually require 'eminent domain land grabs' and generally eliminate the small town charm and unique character of our Jersey Shore."