SEASIDE HEIGHTS, New Jersey — The northern Ocean County beach towns along Route 35 are no stranger to traffic jams along the narrow, heavily traveled highway. But two weeks ago, a perfect storm of unseasonably mild weather, a charity swimming event in Seaside Heights and the torturous process of fixing the damage from Superstorm Sandy created epic gridlock.
Traffic barely moved for more than three hours as a 14-mile-long jam quickly developed when 15,000 people all tried to leave the area at once.
New Jersey and local officials hope they have come up with a sufficient plan to prevent a repeat of that gridlock when the Seaside Heights St. Patrick's Day parade steps off this Saturday.
More is at stake than simply some inconvenienced motorists; this is the time of year that many vacationers decide where to book their shore vacations. Ocean County officials were horrified by TV images of miles of unmoving traffic in an area that desperately needs a tourism rebound this summer.
"It was a real nightmare, and unexpected," said Bay Head Mayor Bill Curtis, who was stuck in the gridlock himself. It took him an hour to drive from his market in the center of town to a nearby bridge — a trip that normally takes 2 to 3 minutes. And he was one of the lucky ones.
"There were people in our town who it took three hours to get home from Seaside Heights," the mayor said of a trip that usually takes about 25 minutes. "We would have been in big trouble if we had had a health emergency or a fire."
The main reason for the gridlock was the ongoing project to rebuild Route 35 from damage it sustained in the Oct. 2012 storm. Parts of the roadway were simply washed away and much of the rest is pockmarked with potholes, sinkholes and tire-eating ruts. The $200 million project to be completed next year includes a new drainage system to pump water during future storms.
The roadway is the second busiest highway at the northern Ocean County shore and runs through some of the worst-hit areas from Sandy.
Mayors of many of the affected towns, including Bay Head, Mantoloking, Brick, Lavallette, Toms River and Seaside Heights, conferred with the state Department of Transportation to try to prevent a repeat of the traffic nightmare during Saturday's parade. Extra lanes, state traffic monitors at strategic intersections, adjustable stop lights, and a major effort to encourage motorists to use Route 37 instead of Route 35 are part of the plan.
Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers is hopeful the plan will work.
"You're going to have normal congestion from a lot of cars being in the area," he said. "But I'm confident we'll have a nice day and people will be able to see the parade, have a good time and leave without major problems."
Emergency work being done this week will enable Hamilton Avenue, a main route into and out of town, to have two lanes heading out to the Route 37 bridge after the parade. The bridge itself will have three lanes of exit traffic. Police will also try to deter as many cars as possible from using Route 35 north to leave the area, Akers said.
Steve Shapiro, a spokesman for the state transportation department, said the plan incorporated local officials' suggestions. But he cautioned there still could be delays.
"It's a big event, similar to a Sunday night in the summer," he said. "There's going to be some traffic. People should remember it is still an active construction area, and they should play to leave themselves additional time. It is going to be crowded and busy."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC