Early last Friday morning, May 5, Charlie Horn strode into the Buy The Cup coffee shop in Rocky Hill, raised his fist, and exulted, “The bridge is open! Woooo!”
There was a celebratory atmosphere in Vitaliy Shakirov’s beloved gathering place. And it extended to the nearby bridge itself, a state-owned span on County Route 518 that crosses the Delaware & Raritan Canal Park. Shiny “Welcome Back” helium balloons were attached to the railings and bobbed in the slipstreams of passing cars. Drivers honked horns and gave thumbs up as they passed over the brand-new span.
Built in 1950, the bridge was slated for replacement in the summer of 2016 due to severe deterioration of its support beams. It was fully closed on July 6, disrupting area traffic and causing a detour around the section of Route 518 that runs through Rocky Hill’s downtown. Buy The Cup saw an immediate 40 percent drop in business.
Then, just two days later, the closure became indefinite and seemingly infinite. The New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund ran out of money for infrastructure work except for emergency repairs. Shakirov had to retrench. He laid off part-time workers, cut back his back hours, and wondered if his business would survive (U.S. 1, August 24, 2016).
Protests broke out from municipalities, volunteer fire and rescue squads, and citizens who count on quick, direct travel along Route 518. In September the Somerset County Board of Freeholders announced that it would pay for the vitally needed project as a capital expenditure that wouldn’t increase local taxes. This jumpstart was rendered moot when, on November 1, a 23-cent increase in the per-gallon state gasoline tax went into effect, refilling (at least temporarily) the Transportation Trust Fund’s tank.
The new bridge is wider, and gone is the wood planking that gave a loud, confidence-draining slap-rumble as cars and trucks pounded across it. The project also yielded an unexpected archeological benefit: Discovered during excavations were large granite-block footings from the original 1830s swing bridge that allowed boats to pass through. They have been permanently relocated next to the historical signage in the adjacent parking lot.
But it remains to be seen if the historical arc of customer traffic will bend back toward Rocky Hill’s downtown after the prolonged detour around it. Buy the Cup had a major uptick on the first full weekday of the bridge reopening, but Shakirov says that it will take weeks to tell if he will have a full recovery.
And the business closest to the canal bridge isn’t waiting for customers to rediscover it. John Shedd Designs, a fine ceramics and decorative wares shop, had an even greater falloff — some 60 percent — which drove owner Shedd to sell the property (U.S. 1, January 4).
“I’m relocating,” Shedd said on Saturday morning. “I have no plans for retiring.” He has already established an outlet at the Tomato Factory Antiques & Design Center, 2 Somerset Street in Hopewell. His Rocky Hill location is under contract. Shedd plans to fully move to the Tomato Factory at closing in July. (He declined to name the prospective buyer at this time.)
Shedd’s Rocky Hill showroom and studio, which he has occupied for some 38 years, had found itself behind the “Road Closed” barriers. Frustrated by this and the ambivalent signage “Business Access Only,” and noting that customers reported that construction officials tried to turn them away because the road was closed, Shedd personally riveted a sign “Pottery open for business ahead” on the barrier. “But how many other customers didn’t get through?” Shedd asked.
Although Shedd’s consumer sales will be in the Tomato Factory, space and electric power considerations dictate that his workshop and kilns be elsewhere. “For the first time in my career, I’ll have a showroom without a studio attached,” Shedd said.
The losses to small businesses and consumers of this delayed New Jersey infrastructure project — and many others — have yet to be determined. Anecdotal conversations at Buy The Cup suggest they are as considerable as they are hidden, especially in time and energy costs.
Charlie Horn, who is with KellerWilliams Cornerstone Realty of Belle Mead, was forced into wide detours as he covered his territory on both sides of the canal. “I’ve had to go around by the River Road bridge [into Griggstown] and got stuck in that (expletive) traffic,” he said. “It’s a disgrace how long it took to fix that.” Horn added that the bridge closing also gave pause to clients planning to buy in Montgomery who must commute to northern New Jersey.
Harry Boeselanger, who owns a farm on Canal Road in Franklin Township, reported how the detour time and expense cut into his earnings while delivering his hay to area horse owners and other customers. Stan Parnett, also of Canal Road, calculated that a four-minute roundtrip to the Montgomery Shop Rite became 14 minutes: Seemingly small, until you multiply all those round trips by nine months.
And it remains to be seen what the new bridge — originally budgeted at $2.75 million — will actually cost New Jersey tax players once the expense of the project’s restart is added to the usual cost overruns. Wrote D.O.T. spokesman Steve Schapiro: “As with any project, final costs are not known until after the project goes through a close out process, which takes some amount of time and varies from project to project.”