PLUM ISLAND — It’s been two decades since the dirt road that winds through the island’s federal wildlife sanctuary has been rebuilt, and the various potholes and uneven surfaces attest to the long years of wear.
But later this spring, the road will receive a significant upgrade. The federal government will rebuild and regrade the 2.8-mile-long gravel road as well as three parking lots along it. The road is expected to be closed a few days a week when work is underway, said Graham Taylor, manager of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.
The precise details of when the work will begin and when the closures will occur have not yet been worked out. Taylor plans to meet with the contractor soon to get a better time frame for the project. His intention is to have it completed before the busy summer visitor season starts.
“What we don’t want to do is get into the early summer with a construction project under way and folks trying to get to Sandy Point and all the birdwatchers,” he said.
The refuge has a single, 6-mile-long road that meanders through a pristine environment of barrier beach forests and scrub, ending at the southernmost tip of Plum Island. The first 3 miles or so are paved up to the Hellcat Swamp parking area and boardwalks, but the last 2-plus miles are gravel. At the southernmost end lies Sandy Point State Reservation, a state-owned beach that draws hundreds of visitors a day during the summer.
Taylor said the road closures are expected to occur during the midweek, which tends to have less traffic. The refuge plans to make announcements when the time frame for construction and road closure is established.
That last couple of miles on the refuge road can be some of the dustiest driving in the region. During dry spells, huge plumes of dust are thrown up by passing cars, coating everything in the immediate area —including bushes, trees, cars and bicyclists. Indeed, a survey conducted at the refuge in 2010-11 found that numerous visitors wanted to see the entire road paved.
Taylor said that option has been discussed and studied, but the cost is prohibitive.
“The cost for paving the road was a lot higher (than gravel); it exceeded the entire region’s road account,” he said. “We opted to go with gravel at this time ... it’s possible that the road may never get paved.”
Taylor did not have information on who won the road bid and what the cost will be. A bid document drawn up by the federal government estimated the cost at $250,000 to $600,000.
The refuge draws more than 250,000 visitors per year, the vast majority of whom come by car. A 2011 transportation study revealed that August is the busiest month, with July and September in close pursuit. Average visitation in August is about 44,000, while July and September each see about 35,500 or so people.
December and January are the quietest months, with around 9,000 visitors each month.