Workers can be seen Monday, June, 1, 2020, on scaffolding hanging from the underside of the Dingmans Ferry Bridge which is closed through June 12 for inspection and repairs. [Photo by Bruce A. Scruton/New Jersey Herald (NJH)]
DINGMANS — Taking advantage of light traffic because of the coronavirus restrictions, the owners of the Dingmans toll bridge are making annual repairs now, rather than the usual September closure.
And when the bridge reopens at 4 p.m. on June 12, tolls will be collected with new precautions in place. When New Jersey and Pennsylvania issued stay-at-home orders in early March, the company, which does not have EZ Pass, suspended toll collections.
The bridge, one of just a handful of private toll bridges left in the country, normally uses a week in June with alternate one-way traffic so engineers may fully inspect it. Necessary repairs are then done during the week after Labor Day when the bridge is closed to all traffic.
"We didn’t need to close down last year," said Jay Oliphant, president of Dingmans Choice and Delaware Bridge Co. The company was chartered in 1834 and the current bridge structure has stood since 1900.
Sitting on the porch of the old stone house on the Pennsylvania side of the river, Oliphant explained the annual cycle of inspections and work.
"Typically the engineers find something that needs attention," he said of the June partial closure. Almost every year, some of the wooden planks which form the bridge deck need to be replaced.
The 10-inch-wide, 18-foot-long planks of yellow pine are three inches thick and are a special order from the lumberyard. The planks usually last about seven years, said company Maintenance Manager Danny Kingston.
Although the bridge stopped collecting tolls in early March, it remained open and drivers, knowing there was no toll-taker on the Pennsylvania side, ignored the 15 mph speed limit.
The limit is posted partially for safety on the narrow bridge, which was made for horse-and-cart, but also to prevent damage from the weight and abuse of modern car traffic.
"They come across over there doing 45 down that hill," Oliphant said, pointing to the New Jersey side where Sussex County Route 560 winds down a hill directly onto the bridge.
He said the speed and weight of vehicles during the last three months has caused even more damage, especially on the New Jersey side of the span.
The damage is visible on a walking tour across the bridge, a rarity since pedestrians are prohibited when the bridge is open because there is barely enough room for two vehicles to pass. Some drivers will even pull in their side-view mirrors when crossing the bridge.
Oliphant said Sussex County’s highway department is taking advantage of the bridge closure to do work on Route 560 from Old Mine Road to the bridge entrance.
Last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation repaved parts of Route 739.
He said the work and inspection could not be completed earlier because many of the workers hired for the job are graduate engineering students and were still attending classes.
The students are getting practical experience while under the supervision of licensed engineers.
The president declined to talk about finances or the amount of traffic. The bridge toll is $1 each way, but the company does sell books of 40 tickets for $30.
When the bridge reopens, collectors will be wearing face coverings, limiting contact and increasing sanitation. The company is also asking drivers to use tickets or exact change.
The first crossing, which links Dingmans Township, Pa., with Sandyston Township, N.J., was a ferry established in 1735. River floods ruined the ferry infrastructure several times. In the 1830s, the first of four bridges was built.
Flooding, and poor workmanship in one case, over the next 70 years brought down the first three bridges. The current bridge, with its steel superstructure and wooden deck, went up in 1900.
In addition to the company’s engineers, the New Jersey Department of Transportation also inspects the bridge on a regular basis.
The nearest bridges across the Delaware River are about 15 miles north at Milford and about 20 miles south at the Delaware Water Gap. Those are also toll bridges and owned by the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, a public agency.