BERLIN — Just days after a serious accident on Route 113 at Bay Street that claimed the life of one Berlin teen and left his brother with serious injuries, town officials and concerned citizens rallied during Tuesday’s Mayor and Council meeting with a concerted effort to affect major changes at the dangerous intersection.
Last Friday evening, a Maryland State Police trooper in an unmarked patrol car struck two Berlin teenage brothers attempting to cross Route 113 near the intersection with Bay Street, claiming the life of one and sending the other to Shock Trauma in Baltimore where he continues to battle major injuries. While the investigation is ongoing, town officials and a groundswell of public support are already asking, even demanding, the State Highway Administration (SHA) make significant changes at the intersection and all along the dangerous stretch of Route 113.
Before dozens of concerned residents could present their case at Tuesday’s meeting, however, town officials announced they were already taking proactive actions to present their case to SHA. Council Vice President Elroy Brittingham read to the assembled crowd an official statement on behalf of absent Mayor Gee Williams.
“The town of Berlin will be making a formal request to the State Highway Administration to study the intersection of U.S. 113 and Bay Street to ask them to determine if either additional highway lighting or a pedestrian countdown signal and related markings are warranted as a result of Friday evening’s tragic accident,” the statement reads. “It will also include a request to see if additional lighting is warranted at the crossover on U.S. 113 just south of Bay Street that serves as the main entrance to Decatur Farm.”
Route 113, a major north-south corridor, divides much of Berlin’s historic downtown area, shopping, medical facilities and schools from densely populated neighborhoods on the east side of town. As a result, the highway presents a major barrier to the town’s progressive efforts to encourage walking and biking for its citizens and visitors. Councilmember Lisa Hall said Friday’s tragic accident is a grim reminder of how far the town has to go on the initiative.
“We talk about walkable-bikeable Berlin, yet we have a major highway going through the middle of town,” she said. “I don’t think State Highway wants pedestrians on this highway. Nothing has been done with foot traffic. I’m going to make it a priority to be heard. That’s a very dark stretch of road and it’s very concerning.”
Hall suggested several short- and long-term solutions from pedestrian markings and countdown clocks to better lighting and possible speed limit reductions in the section of the highway that runs through town.
“Simply reducing the speed limit to 40 mph from Boomer’s to the overpass at Route 50 near the hospital would be an immediate help,” she said. “We shouldn’t stop until something is done.”
Brittingham said the town’s request for action from SHA would be a challenge, but vowed to continue to press the issues until the desired changes are affected.
“We know how hard it is working with the state,” he said. “It took a long time to get just a blinking yellow light at Germantown Road. We’ll do everything we can to get something done.”
Brittingham said SHA often responds to requests for changes after a pattern of serious and sometimes fatal accidents. He pointed to a recent battle in Snow Hill for a traffic signal at the intersection of Routes 113 and 12 as an example.
“When you look at 113 in Snow Hill, it took a lot of lives lost before something got done,” he said. “I’m afraid to say it, but that’s how they determine these things.”
When the public got their opportunity to voice their concerns and make their requests, de facto mouthpiece Patricia Dufendach took the lead. Dufendach, who has been outspoken about the need for change along the busy highway in the past, opened with a brief statement before a point presentation identifying the problems and offering solutions.
“This is not only a loss to the family, but it’s a loss for our entire community,” she said. “I’ve spoken to the council several times before, but tonight I’m stepping up my game. This recent tragedy has added a sense of urgency to my cause.”
Dufenback said the highway was engineered and designed long before Berlin blossomed over the last decade or so with rapid residential and commercial development changing the municipal landscape.
“Route 113 is still using 1970s engineering for a 21st century problem,” she said. “A major highway divides Berlin and the town has done a good job with sidewalks, but the sidewalks stop abruptly at 113. AGH and the healthcare facilities lack pedestrian access.”
Dufendach pointed out the Shore Transit bus stops are often on the opposite side of the highway from the people who use it. She suggested Berlin and SHA attempt to emulate some of the successes in Ocean City and West Ocean City, where pedestrian crosswalks and countdown clocks have recently been installed at some of the major intersections. She also recommended adopting some of the elements of Ocean City’s successful Walk Smart program.
She suggested a petition drive could be forthcoming and called for a public meeting within 10 days at the Multi-Purpose building on the east side of Route 113 with town and county elected officials, SHA representatives and concerned citizens. In the meantime, Dufendach suggested there were things that could be done immediately to relieve some of the problems.
“Until that happens, I would like to see temporary emergency notification signs be placed on the highway north and south warning motorists they are entering an area where pedestrians cross,” she said. “That’s something that can be done tomorrow with little effort and little expense.”
Dufendach also requested action on the long-awaited light at Germantown Rd. at the south entrance point to the Berlin downtown area along Route 113. Town officials have long fought for a fixed traffic signal at the intersection and were placated somewhat a few years back with a flashing yellow signal, but town officials and concerned citizens feel the time is now right to make it a full-fledged traffic signal.
“I’m asking the town to demand a long-awaited traffic signal at Germantown Rd.,” she said. “Let the north-south traffic know a town is coming up. Place a policeman at Bay Street during the upcoming parade and encourage all people to enjoy Berlin.”
Berlin resident Gabe Purnell agreed Germantown Rd. was another trouble spot along Route 113 further south of Bay Street.
“Germantown Rd. is very dangerous,” he said. “I don’t even go that way anymore. The traffic gets on you so quick it’s scary.”
Purnell urged the entire community to voice their concerns and demand changes along the dangerous stretch of Route 113.
“The whole community needs to be involved,” he said. “When the whole community gets involved, good things will happen.”
Purnell likened Berlin’s situation to the similar effort in Snow Hill to get a traffic signal at the intersection of Routes 113 and 12 earlier this year. The intersection was the site of several serious accidents including a few fatal accidents and SHA responded with more signage, rumble strips and ultimately J-turns. Only after constant pressure from the community did SHA agree to install a traffic signal at the deadly intersection.
“People got involved and the whole community got involved,” he said. “People came out in numbers and they got their light.”
In addition to physical changes to the intersection at Bay Street and all along the section of Route 113 that runs through Berlin, town officials and concerned citizens said a concerted public education effort needs to be implemented. Some suggested pedestrian safety and awareness should be taught in the schools. Berlin Police Chief Arnold Downing agreed, but said the education and awareness campaign had to go beyond school lessons.
“Education is going to be a very big thing,” he said. “That goes for adults and children. We need to preach awareness to drivers and pedestrians.”
Downing said there had been 63 accidents at the intersection of Route 113 and Bay Street since 2000. He said pressuring SHA to make a significant change at the intersection caused a reduction in the frequency and severity of the accidents and urged town officials and the public to push for more changes.
“Those numbers were dramatically reduced when left turn signals were added there,” he said. “We need to come up with ideas, write them down, email them in and do whatever it takes. We can come up with a lot of ideas and real answers and real solutions.”
Downing said he planned to email SHA Deputy District Engineer Ken Cimino before leaving on Tuesday night with some of the suggestions and demands, both short-term and long-term, which were brought forth during the meeting.
“There are things that can be done almost right away and things that will likely take some time,” he said. “In the short term, I’m going to ask to temporary message signs at either end of town on 113 saying watch out for pedestrians. Further down the road, we need to ask for a speed limit reduction, the light at Germantown Rd., countdown clocks and other markings at pedestrian crossings.”