SNOW HILL – Support for an expensive and disruptive Route 50 Bridge future design was noticeably lacking among the County Commissioners with some saying they preferred to see the existing bridge rehabilitated rather than replaced.
State Highway Administration (SHA) staff went before the commissioners Tuesday seeking answers on which bridge design alternative the commissioners preferred. Options on the table include three variations on a new span, rehabilitation of the existing bridge and no action beyond minor repairs.
The commissioners made it clear that the SHA push for the fixed-span bridge (alternative four modified), which would displace 11 houses and 14 businesses and cost $400 million, was not to their liking. About half of that $400 million would go to purchase that property.
The second alternative, rehabilitation, would cost $128 million.
“It looks like [option] two is the best bang for your buck,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.
Scott Holcomb, a consultant on the project for SHA, disagreed. The bridge, even with rehabilitation, will only last another 20 to 25 years, he said.
“At some point in the next decade, we’ll be back here,” said Holcomb. “Alternate two long-term doesn’t seem to be a viable option.”
Despite the cost, SHA staffers favor the fixed-span bridge to eliminate the drawbridge, which, they say, causes serious back-ups on Route 50 during tourist season.
Traffic modeling shows the lack of a drawbridge reduces delays, according to Holcomb.
“This is just one road block but it’s a very long road block,” he said.
Alternative four modified will have no drawbridge, which is a future benefit, Holcomb said. The other two new bridge options include the drawbridge.
The Ocean City Mayor and Council also favors alternative four, said Nicole Washington, an SHA staffer.
Different engineering options, which cost less, could turn up in the future, if SHA waits, said Commission President Louise Gulyas.
“I’m just a little surprised the State Highway Administration would come in with the most expensive alternative with the highest opposition as your recommendation,” Commissioner Bud Church said.
“I do have concerns the $400 million would double and the $200 million would also double. You’re talking an awful lot of money,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs.
“I really think we should look at less expensive alternatives,” said Commissioner Linda Busick.
If the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is just 10 years younger than the Rt. 50 Bridge, can be kept in repair in and in service, Shockley wondered why the state could not do the same with the Ocean City bridge.
Traffic jams in the summer are just part of the Ocean City experience, according to Shockley.
“I don’t mind sitting there and watching the boats go by. I enjoy sitting there and watching boats go by,” Shockley said. “Frankly, it’s part of the charm, you know? It’s who we are. Sometimes just keeping who we are means a lot.”
Alternative four would also be the most disruptive option, calling for nearly half the cost to be spent on right-of-way acquisition, which would eliminate businesses and housing in downtown Ocean City to make way for the new bridge.
“You’re taking away about $200 million of our tax base,” said Church.
Gulyas allowed audience members to comment on the controversial topic.
“It’s disruptive to Ocean City. It tears up the historic impact of Ocean City,” Hale Harrison of the Harrison Group Hotels said. “It takes the most land. It’s the most opposed. It’s the most costly.”
There are common sense solutions to road delays, Harrison said, like managing traffic better. Lights west of the bridge should be synchronized to the bridge opening, he suggested. Boat traffic could also be managed to reduce the number of drawbridge openings or reduce their duration.
SHA should try those management strategies on a busy summer weekend, Harrison said.
Although the suggested alternative is now projected to cost $400 million, construction might not begin for years and costs could double.
“Have you guys lost your minds? We don’t have that kind of money and we don’t have that kind of problem,” Harrison said.
Harrison also had a beef with SHA over meeting notification, saying that SHA failed to tell concerned citizens about its recent meeting with the Ocean City Mayor and Council when the agency sought support for alternative four. The meeting was not advertised and no letters were sent out, he said.
While SHA has held multiple workshops and meetings, opponents of the bridge plans are ignored, Harrison said.
“I don’t know why, when the real decision is made, why you don’t contact us,” Harrison said.
Harrison called for a real public hearing.
The commissioners voted unanimously to not endorse any option, to ask SHA to hold a public hearing during an advertised meeting and to bring in the Coast Guard and boating community at that meeting.
“Fix the damn bridge. It’s all I’ve ever asked for. Just fix it. It can’t be that hard,” said Gulyas, who represents Ocean City and lives downtown.